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Review: It’s ‘1776’ again, and independence is in the air

Review: It’s ‘1776’ again, and independence is in the air
The Second Continental Congress is in session in "1776." (Jason Niedle)

How quickly things change. In just four years, it’s become unimaginable that anyone would write a musical about our nation’s founders without giving them a hip-hop beat.

But before “Hamilton” — before hip-hop, even — there was a musical called “1776,” which opened on Broadway in March 1969.

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It presented the founders as ordinary men of varied beliefs who, under intense pressure, quarreled their way toward consensus. Daringly, the show forsook music for long intervals as the Second Continental Congress debated whether to declare independence from England. When the action did turn to song, the melodies fused 18th century popular music with golden-age Broadway.

A rare production of “1776” — by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment — runs through Feb. 3 in La Mirada, then at the Soraya in Northridge, Feb. 8-10.

Why rare, despite the show’s best-musical Tony and a cadre of fans devoted to it and its 1972 movie version? Likely, the answer lies in the expense of filling 27 roles and the inequity of just two being women.

The testosterone makes a statement, though. The show is at its richest when the delegates’ voices unite in robust male choruses. The virility of the sound evokes the swagger that it took for a ragtag collection of settlers to snatch a prize from powerful England while laying the groundwork for a unique and vibrant nation. “Hamilton” uses the bravado of hip-hop to similar effect. Perhaps it’s primed us to hear the older show anew.

Some of L.A.’s most dependable actors have been assembled here, including Peter Van Norden, Teri Bibb and Michael Rothhaar. Jeff Rizzo leads an orchestra of eight.

Directed by Glenn Casale, the staging is solid, although it’s merely diligent and studious where it should be urgent and inspired. The material’s erudition makes it a bit stodgy; acceleration is required to keep things moving.

Unfolding mostly in a chamber in what we now know as Independence Hall, “1776” is bound to look, at first, like a historical painting come to life, which is what Casale and his designers — Stephen Gifford (sets) and Shon LeBlanc (costumes) — give us: tall, pane windows; lines of tables; and ponytailed delegates in breeches and frock coats.

Andy Umberger as John Adams
Andy Umberger as John Adams (Jason Niedle)

John Adams becomes the most outspoken proponent of independence, counseled by Benjamin Franklin. Andy Umberger’s Adams is brusque, focused and prim. He’s a geek, but he’s just the guy his proto-nation needs. Van Norden’s Franklin, ever at Adams’ elbow, is wily and playful.

Women’s contributions to early America don’t get as dynamic a depiction as the Schuyler sisters in “Hamilton,” but Abigail Adams, portrayed by Bibb, is on hand to match wits with her husband via spoken “letters” and thereby project intelligence, strength and perseverance, as well as a touch of warmth.

“1776” was the brainchild of composer-lyricist Sherman Edwards, who’d had some success writing popular songs — “Broken Hearted Melody,” for instance — but for whom this was his only Broadway score. The script is by Peter Stone, known for such screenplays as “Charade” and such later musicals as “The Will Rogers Follies.”

Their portrait of the nation is rousing yet pragmatic. Some of these early Americans champion states’ rights and the primacy of business while others emphasize equality and individual freedoms. But compromise and shared purpose win the day. That’s an example from which many of us now might benefit.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘1776’

In La Mirada: La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd.

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When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 3.

Tickets: $14-$89

Info: (562) 944-9801, lamiradatheatre.com

In Northridge: Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, 18111 Nordhoff St.

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 8, 3 and 8 p.m. Feb. 9, 3 p.m. Feb. 10

Tickets: $41-$99

Info: (818) 677-3000, thesoraya.org

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

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