1776, Drury Lane Oakbrook. Don’t believe the marble statues: the men who gathered in a hot Philadelphia assembly room 224 years ago to sign the Declaration of Independence were flesh-and-blood sinners, hypocritical, shortsighted, petulant, petty–and possessed of a vision that changed history.
This silly/stirring musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone was first produced in the equally revolutionary year of 1968. Though no Hair, it’s strangely subversive, especially whenever it turns the “spirit of ’76” into a sitcom. In songs that are stupider than the story, Franklin and Adams debate whether the new “egg” of the democracy is a turkey or an eagle, Richard Henry Lee hysterically puns on the family name, and Jefferson’s (white) wife sings salaciously about how well he plays her violin. A soldier’s farewell and a bitter indictment of New England’s slave trade are as hard-hitting as the songs get. But the script gives the story’s conclusion a surprising suspense. We know all the whats but are less sure about the hows, let alone the whys.
With its bold personalities, 1776 is catnip for character actors. Director Ray Frewen (who also plays loyalist John Dickinson) enlists Chicago’s best. Roger Mueller is splenetically self-righteous as firebrand John Adams, David Lively wryly winsome as Ben Franklin, and Paul Slade Smith almost painfully human as Thomas Jefferson. Jill Shellabarger’s stalwart Abigail Adams stands in for the founding mothers in an excellent ensemble as distinguished in its way as the play’s characters. –Lawrence Bommer