As popular as "1776" has been, the show still seems an odd subject for a musical, based as it is on 13 colonial delegations to the Continental Congress fighting over whether to revolt against King George III.
Book writer Peter Stone does bring in John Adams' wife, Abigail, to illustrate the power that women have always had exerted behind the scenes, Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha, for a little titillation, and a soldier's mother for a heart tug. But they are peripheral to the show's core, which is the multilayered bickering between forward-looking men deciding whether the labor pains of giving birth to a new nation are worth the effort.
Stone's book holds together beautifully in this production by the newly formed Repertory Theatre of Westminster, particularly his final scene, the goose-pimple raising, ritual signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Without exceptional voices in some supporting roles, and with an unbalanced sound design by Ross Miller, which often has the keyboard accompaniment louder than the voices, most of Sherman Edwards' score seems tacked on to the major action.
The exceptions are the show's three best songs. The buoyant "The Lees of Old Virginia" is full of joy and energy in the no-holds-barred performance of Scott A. Ruiz as Richard Henry Lee, who approaches the number like a stallion just out of the gate.
Peter Sroka, as South Carolina's Edward Rutledge, is just as impressive in his pro-slavery harangue, "Molasses to Rum," but his mannered physicality is sometimes distracting.
As the very weary courier for Commander in Chief George Washington, Brian Perley gets all of the heart out of the soulful lament for a fallen soldier, "Momma, Look Sharp," with a light tenor that finds power in the young man's torment.
Bradley Miller is altogether too placid as John Adams, but he puts over Adams' numbers very well, especially those in tandem with the warm soprano of Dawn Britt's Abigail.
It's the sort of placidity that marks Patricia Miller's direction of the production, otherwise well-shaped but without the high tension in the book sections that give the show its dramatic punch. Bill Wolfe's musical direction usually keeps the energy high.
There is unevenness in roles that depend more on acting than singing, but everyone seems aware of the period and the style required. Especially notable are Bill Forants' gentle Tom Jefferson (his powerful voice doesn't have enough exposure here), David Shaffer's kittenish Ben Franklin, George Almond's implacable John Dickinson, B. Aaron Cogan's cool John Hancock, and Sroka's disagreeable Rutledge.
Director Miller's scenic design is appropriate and visually effective. But it seems out of place that she allows her actors to bring some of the action into the audience and to use auditorium side doors for entrances and exits. If there ever were a show that begged for a fourth wall, "1776" is it.
* "1776," Westminster Cultural Arts Center, 7571 Westminster Blvd., Westminster. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $8. (714) 373-0422. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.
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Bradley Miller: John Adams
David Shaffer: Benjamin Franklin
George Almond: John Dickinson
Bill Forant: Thomas Jefferson
Peter Sroka: Edward Rutledge
Dawn Britt: Abigail Adams
B. Aaron Cogan: John Hancock
Brian Perley: Courier for the Continental Army
Scott A. Ruiz: Richard Henry Lee
A Repertory Theatre of Westminster production of the Peter Stone/Sherman Edwards musical. Direction/scenic design: Patricia Miller. Musical direction: Bill Wolfe. Choreography: Bradley Miller. Lighting design: Aaron Abrams. Sound design: Ross Miller. Costumes: Patricia Miller, Dawn Britt, Sandi Newcomb. Stage manager: Cynthia Callaway.