It’s always exciting for me to discover a new play or musical, and that’s exactly 
how I felt experiencing 1776 at Actors Co-op.  True, 1776 has been around for 
nearly 30 years, and I believe that I just might have seen the first national tour 
(though if so, obviously in my infancy). I think also that I may have rented the 
movie version at some time or other since the advent of the VCR. Still, 
whatever memories I have of any previous 1776s are vague to say the least. 
That’s why seeing 1776 at last, especially in such a polished and class-act 
production, filled me with a sense of discovery.

Who would have thought that a musical could be made about a bunch of 
American Colonials holed up in a hot sweltering room and debating whether 
to declare independence from Great Britain, much less one that would run 
over 1200 performances on Broadway and win the Tony for best musical, 
spawn an Oscar nominated film, and then return to Broadway in an award 
winning revival?

Having missed both the 2001 Reprise! production and the 2004 Ovation- 
winning revival at Performance Riverside, I was delighted to finally get the 
chance to see 1776 at Actors Co-op, a company which has rarely if ever not 
gotten a musical right.  Their production of 1776 lives up to my expectations, 
and more so.

The Co-op made the wise decision to hire triple (or is it quadruple?) threat 
Richard Israel to direct it, and Israel has cast the show with the best the Co-
op’s outstanding company of actors has to offer, as well as guest artists at the 
same high level. The result is a 1776 which must certainly stand tall among its 
many predecessors (even if I didn’t get the chance to see them.)

1776 is a musical par excellence, but it could just as easily be considered a play 
with music.  The original cast recording runs less than 42 minutes, including the 
overture, meaning that 1776 has more “book” than the average musical, and 
what a book that is! Peter Stone makes history come alive, and as is true with 
12 Angry Men, even though we know the outcome (they’re going to declare 
independence, in case you haven’t heard), there is edge of your seat suspense 
getting there. There’s also comedy, and romance, and a cast of fully three-
dimensional characters to boot.

1776 was Sherman Edwards’ baby.  It was his concept, his music, his lyrics, and 
amazingly, his only Broadway show, though anyone familiar with 50s and 60s 
pop will remember “Wonderful, Wonderful,” “Johnny Get Angry,” and “See You 
In September,” all composed by Edwards.  No wonder the score of 1776 is so 
melodious. Its songs are dancing around in my head even as I write this, songs 
like “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down,” “The Lees Of Old Virginia,” “He Plays The 
Violin,” and the star-making solos “Momma Look Sharp” and “Molasses To 
Rum.”  Though others wrote the lyrics to Edwards’ hit songs, he proved himself 
every bit his lyricists’ equal with the witty words which accompany his tuneful 

From the moment the curtain parts and the audience is treated to a tableau 
of our Nation’s founders, looking like something out of a classic American 
painting, we know we are in for something special, even more so when two 
dozen male voices sing out in unison, “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down.”  (With a 
cast of 26, this is a show that few large theaters would have the budget to 
produce these days.)

The “John” being asked to sit down is, of course, John Adams, and the role of 
John is one that wins actors awards, most recently Steven Glaudini, Ovation 
winner for the Performance Riverside production. Here the role goes to one of 
the Co-op’s finest actors, Bruce Ladd, and if his voice isn’t the caliber of some 
who have played the role before, his presence, power, and humor in the role 
more than make up for it.  A man referred to by all as “obnoxious and disliked,” 
John Adams is also a devoted husband, a clever politician, and a tireless 
fighter for American independence. 

Matching Ladd every step of the way is Larry Lederman’s memorable work as 
Ben Franklin, the inventor of the stove (as he is wont to point out) and 
countless clever sayings still quoted today. (“Calling me an Englishman is like 
calling an ox a bull: he’s grateful for the honor, but he’d rather have restored 
what’s rightfully his.”  “Treason is a charge used by winners as an excuse for 
hanging the losers.” “Revolutions come into this world like bastard children. 
Half improvised and half compromised.”)  

Ben Hensley makes a fine, and sympathetic, Thomas Jefferson, and because 
Jefferson is a man of few words, much of Hensley’s performance is rooted in 
silence, his pensive face speaking volumes.  Michael Downing gets the meaty 
role of Adams’ chief adversary, John Dickenson, the proud delegate from 
Pennsylvania, and his confrontations with Ladd are electric.

1776 offers a trio of actors some of the best center-stage moments ever in an 
ensemble based show. Mark Kinsey Stephenson could easily find himself on this 
years “Best of” lists for his scene-stealing turn as the very full of himself Richard 
Henry Lee, whose “The Lees Of Old Virginia” comes with its own built-in encore, 
the better to win awards with. Matt Lutz brings his pure as honey tenor to the 
heartbreaking “Momma Look Sharp” and Stephen Van Dorn proves himself 
once again the Co-op’s finest opera-ready singer as his proud Southern 
gentleman Edward Rutledge rebukes his Northern colleagues for the “aroma 
of hypocrisy floating down from the North” in “Molasses To Rum.”

The two lone women’s roles are small, but few musical theater actresses would 
turn down the chance to play their memorable scenes and sing their 
memorable songs. Leslie Spencer Smith is a divine Abigail Adams, lending her 
beauty and exquisite voice to long distance duets with her longed for 
husband John.  Erika Whalen is cute and charmingly winning as Martha 
Jefferson, warbling the delightful “He Plays The Violin” with Franklin and Adams.

One of the best things about Stone’s book is that it allows even the smallest of 
roles to reveal at least some characteristic that makes it distinctive and offers 
the actor playing it his own shining moment on stage.  It is only space and time 
constraints that prevent me from giving each of the following actors the 
paragraph he deserves. Apologies to them all for simply mentioning their 
names: Tad Atkinson, Ryan Beringer, Gary Clemmer, Stephen Folds, Anthony 
Gruppuso, Tim Farmer, Jim Keily, Rick Marcus, Carl Meobus, Michael Mulligan, 
David Nadeau, Markus Parker, Don Robb, David Scales, Brian Sparrow, Ronnie 
Steadman, and Gary Steelman.

As 1776 unfolds, we hear the increasingly depressing reports of British troupes 
on the way and Colonial soldiers on the verge of mutiny, sent by “G. 
Washington” with a drum roll sounding whenever his name is spoken. We see 
the resistance of the Southern delegates to turn against the British crown.  We 
wonder if Caesar Rodney will succumb to cancer before he can cast his vote 
for Independence.  We observe a demoralized Thomas Jefferson delete clause 
after clause from “his” Declaration, waiting to see if he will delete the one 
which means most to him, the one which abolishes slavery.  And we wonder if 
the delegate from New York will ever do something other than abstain.  

There are many many fine musical sequences in 1776, but there is one where 
the talents of all concerned (actors, director Israel, musical director Johanna 
Kent, choreographer Allison Bibicoff, costume designer A. Jeffery Shoenberg, 
and lighting designer Lisa D. Katz) come together with particular brilliance, 
and that is the minuet of the Royalists entitled “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” 
sung by Dickinson and the Conservatives (sounds like a 60s rock group). Eerily lit 
from below, costumed in British finery and powdered wigs, its actors executing 
Bibicoff’s precise dance steps, the number is reminiscent of the best of Fosse, 
like something from an 18th century Cabaret or Chicago.

Stephen Gifford’s set design for “The Chamber of the Continental Congress” is 
as classy and finely detailed a creation as any big theater production could 
provide. The walls look like walls, not flats, and the paint looks like what you’d 
find on the walls of an elegant state building, not a on stage setting.  Cricket S. 
Myers adds yet another fine sound design to her resume.

If there’s one area where this 1776 is lacking, it’s simply that a piano,  
keyboards, a violin, and a drum don’t, in fact can’t, sound the same as a full 
orchestra, and this is a show that cries out for more instruments. But no matter, 
doing 99-seat theater means a certain degree of compromise, and Gary 
Mattison, Balint Sapzson, Paula Kuhr, and Michael Wachs make this four-piece 
band sound about as good as can possibly be, given budget and space 

Actors Co-op deserves kudos galore for undertaking such a daunting 
production, and with a verveful (I know it’s not a word but it should be) 
director like Israel bringing out the best in his cast, they have come up with a 
real winner. This production brought tears to my eyes, and should be required 
viewing for every student in the area, and for their parents (and just about 
everyone else) as well.

The Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
     February 16, 2008

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