Anybody who (like me) attended elementary school in the 1970s, when the curriculum consisted almost exclusively of the American Revolution, might quail at the thought of “1776,” a musical about the Declaration of Independence. Scrupulously avoiding all military action (no Paul Revere in sight), the story focuses on the disputes of bewigged, frock-coated congressmen in a hot Philadelphia chamber.
And I thoroughly enjoyed it. Glendale’s lively production, directed by Todd Nielson with a solid cast, highlights the play’s strengths (playful wit, well-drawn characters and pleasant if not especially memorable songs), downplays its weaknesses (some corny ribaldry and sentimentality) and makes it plausible that Broadway’s “1776” beat out “Hair” for a Tony in 1969. Glendale Centre Theatre’s genteel, slightly faded theater-in-the-round even feels like a Colonial courtroom.
The signers of the Declaration are often presented as a unified group, but “1776” shows the tense, uncertain, behind-the-scenes negotiations of adamantly opposed factions. John Adams, “obnoxious and disliked” (a great Peter Husmann), teams up with the sleepy, genial Benjamin Franklin (John Butz, a delightful actor with an uncanny resemblance to the Founding Father) to rally their skeptical peers in the face of Gen. Washington’s increasingly dire dispatches (“The man could depress a hyena,” remarks Thomas McKean).
There are two trumped-up female roles (lovely Victoria Strong plays Abigail Adams, who pops in to sing her letters to her husband, and cutesy Michaelia Leigh is Martha Jefferson, who cures Thomas’ writer’s block — this didn’t actually happen — with a night of passion), but “1776” is a buddy play. The number “But, Mr. Adams,” in which Adams, Franklin and Jefferson (Jeff Drushal, amusingly glum) play hot potato with the job of writing the Declaration, entertainingly humanizes these monumental figures.
— Margaret Gray
“1776.” Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St,, Glendale. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. 3 p.m. July 10 and 17 only. Ends Aug. 13. $18-$23. Contact: www.glendalecentretheatre.com or (818) 244-8481. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Photo: Jeff Drushal (Thomas Jefferson), left, John Butz (Benjamin Franklin) and Peter Husmann (John Adams) in “1776” at Glendale Centre Theatre. Credit: Tim Dietlein.