When it comes to the singing and dancing of our founding fathers, “Hamilton” was not there first. In 1969, while it seemed that half the country was celebrating uncharted rebellion at “Hair,” the musical called “1776” was trying to reassure the older end of Broadway that the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence were theater folk, too.
Apropos, no doubt, of the smashing success of “Hamilton,” the Encores! series of semi-staged revivals has devoted this weekend to another look at the Tony-winning precursor. The show — really a debate play with music — has an endlessly talky but not insultingly simplified historical book by Peter Stone, which is punctuated occasionally by bouncy anthems and extremely pretty harmonies by Sherman Edwards.
This production, directed by Garry Hynes with a deft hand and a few too many stereotyped characterizations, dresses the big, good, often overqualified cast in modern clothes — not frock coats and wigs — ostensibly to bring a timely edge to references to the torpid do-nothing Continental Congress. The cast is all men, except for two underutilized women (most impressively, Christiane Noll as Abigail Adams) to demonstrate that our bickering forefathers were, hey, human enough to get really horny for the wives back home.
Santino Fontana has a lovely obsessiveness as John Adams, a pushy fellow so “obnoxious and disliked” in his zeal for independence that his colleagues sing about it. John Larroquette holds everything amusingly together as the unpretentious philosopher Ben Franklin. Bryce Pinkham’s John Dickinson makes a formidably unpleasant case for sticking with Britain and with slavery.
There is probably nothing Hynes can do to lessen the jarring changes in tone when the jollity stops so that a young messenger (John-Michael Liles) can sing a lament for dead soldiers and Edward Rutledge (Alexander Gemignani) can whip up a furious defense of slavery, “Molasses to Rum.” Thomas Jefferson (John Behlmann) is never challenged for keeping his slaves, but gets cured of his writer’s block when Adams imports Jefferson’s wife to relieve the hormonal pressure. And, thus, the Declaration of Independence is born.
The result is a jaunty, square, good-natured, overlong-at-almost-three-hours historical pageant that, for all its purported warts-and-all irreverence, is Broadway’s equivalent of an extremely competent after-school special.