Pasadena Theatre Company, showing a good sense of timing or a little bit of luck, scheduled in the middle of an election season a musical chronicling the vote for independence by the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776.
The theater group knew about the historical parallels between the 1969 Broadway opening when Americans were divided over the Vietnam War and the present political divisions over Iraq, but it is unlikely to have anticipated the wrangling in Congress over the financial crisis during this musical's opening week.
Similar arguments are on display on stage at Anne Arundel Community College's Humanities Recital Hall for the current performances of Sherman Edwards' musical 1776.
Former history teacher and songwriter Edwards' musical about our nation's birth was hailed for its originality at its 1969 Broadway opening when it won that season's Tony for best musical and ran for more than three years. Seeing revered historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams portrayed as proud, frightened human beings who argue and compromise with each other over independence - often to musical accompaniment - invests the Founding Fathers with a humanity lacking in textbooks.
Pasadena's production is top-notch in many aspects, with expert direction by Mark Tyler, a competent 26-member cast, an authentic-looking set, the magnificent costumes and wigs, and appropriate choreography and lively music. Attention to quality extends even to the playbill, which includes a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the back cover.
Pasadena's production begins with a children's chorus singing "Free America" and comes to life in the next number when members of Congress sing "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down" to John Adams, who is intent on establishing a new nation. The Massachusetts representative is played by Stephen Deininger, who brings desperation to a character described as "obnoxious and disliked," though he gives Adams' character a warm human side, especially in duets with his wife, Abigail, played by Pamela Day. Both actors provide memorable duets in "Till Then" and "Yours, Yours, Yours." The Adams couple's charming and often poignant interchanges add a romantic element and reveal Abigail as a strong, independent Colonial woman.
Actor Chuck Dick bears an uncanny resemblance to Franklin, making his witticism sparkle to bring the venerable statesman to life. His sage counsel of patience and compromise to Adams, selecting the more affable Richard Henry Lee to propose independence instead of Adams, and arranging for newlywed Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha, to visit so he can get on with writing the Declaration of Independence might bend history, but it brings dimension to Franklin. Dick's portrayal adds charm to such trio numbers as "The Lees of Old Virginia," "But, Mr. Adams" and the humorous "He Plays the Violin."
Christopher Oleniewski plays a young Jefferson, displaying initial reluctance to begin drafting the Declaration, frustration with the first drafts and a longing for his wife, Martha, which helps establish Jefferson's youth and virility. Martha is played by Lauren Riley, who adds sparkle to the role as she dances with Franklin and Adams in "He Plays the Violin," which defines Jefferson's irresistible charm. Oleniewski's loving recitation of selected famous phrases is as appealing as his defense of "inalienable," which he does not want changed to "unalienable."
Other notable performances are given by Mark Tyler as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, who lends affability to his character and charming animation to "The Lees of Old Virginia"; Mark Dawson, who displays a suitably commanding stage presence as John Hancock, president of the Congress; and his brother, Doug Dawson, as Robert Livingston of New York, who may be better known as a music director.
Ed Wintermute is compelling as the heroic ailing patriot Caesar Rodney of Delaware, whose illness forces him to leave Congress and return heroically when he casts a deciding vote to ensure the document's passage.
There are moving musical moments as well. Tom Jackson plays the courier who brings Congress several increasingly dire messages from George Washington and describes battle scenes he witnessed in Lexington where two of his friends were killed. Jackson's courier sings of a dying young man as his mother searches for his body in "Momma, Look Sharp." John Day, as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina arguing over slavery in "Molasses to Rum," reminds Northerners of their prosperity resulting from their part in the slave trade.
This show provides enlightening entertainment for all ages and might offer a renewed sense of national pride and perhaps a grudging respect for today's Congress.
Performances of 1776 continue tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Anne Arundel Community College Humanities Recital Hall. Tickets are $15 with unreserved seating and $12 for children 12 and under. Tickets are available in advance at Pasadena Theatre Company's Web site at www.ptcshows.com.