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‘1776’ breathes life into historical figures |

‘1776’ breathes life into historical figures

| Monday, June 28, 2004 12:00 a.m

Just in time for the Fourth of July, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera displays the fireworks of the original Independence Day.

Don’t alert the authorities.

Nobody is launching skyrockets, igniting Roman candles or setting off cherry bombs inside the Benedum Center.

The fireworks are political as the creators of the Declaration of Independence bluster, debate, rage, engage in fisticuffs and, on occasion, sing and dance their way into the American Revolution.

With a book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, the musical “1776” works overtime to transform those stiff, dusty, two-dimensional heroes of our American History classes into very real and passionate three-dimensional people.

The Civic Light Opera gives the musical a thoroughly professional and supportive staging. Mariann Verheyen’s costumes lend opulence and authenticity. Kevin Rupnik’s scenic design seems to thrust itself through the picture frame of the proscenium arch to lend urgency and reality to the deliberations.

Walls of louvered shutters pull back to reveal the wood-paneled Philadelphia chamber where the Second Continental Congress met to deliberate. Using the simple ticking clock devices of calendar and tally board, the production generates a surprising amount of suspense and drama for an outcome already known.

John Adams is billed as obnoxious and disliked. Granted, he’s insistent and arrogant in his attempts to drag the unwilling into independence. But Malcolm Gets, most widely known for his role in the NBC comedy “Caroline in the City,” makes him engaging and often funny. He also displays a pleasant, strong voice.

There’s a huge cast of Civic Light Opera veterans plus a few newcomers filling the remaining the 26 roles.

Director and choreographer David H. Bell, himself a veteran of nearly a dozen Civic Light Opera shows — his last was “Casper” — makes sure that everyone gets a cameo as a way of showcasing the diversity of opinions and perspectives that had to be overcome to achieve a unanimous vote for independence. Edmund Lyndeck’s crusty curmudgeon Stephen Hopkins, set for independence from the start, waits out the debate with a tankard of rum. John Scherer’s Richard Henry Lee engages in silly wordplay while leading the Virginia delegation. Billy Hartung supports a religious perspective as the Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon. Tim Hartman blusters nicely in a wig pouffy enough that he could pass for a member of a ’60s girl group. Paul Palmer creates scrappy outbursts as Col. Thomas McKean, a boisterous, intimidating Scotsman.

Bell also creates a few small interludes of dance. The most amusing, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” finds Bradley Dean, as John Dickinson, leading a group of fellow conservatives — including former Civic Light Opera Executive Director Charles Gray as Lewis Morris — in a stately, well-executed minuet “ever to the right.”

The framers of the Declaration of Independence were, of course, far from diverse. The assembly is one of white Western European males, primarily from the upper and educated classes. This is brought home in the most emotional and dramatic clash of the show, “Molasses to Rum,” in which Trent Blanton’s Edward Rutledge of South Carolina points up the hypocrisy of those who decry slavery while profiting from it indirectly or directly.

Two women make small appearances. Jacquelyn Piro, as Abigail Adams, exhibits a rich voice in pairings with Gets as husband John as they sing their correspondence. As Martha Jefferson, Kelly McCormick sings the show’s most romantic songs, “He Plays the Violin.”

The show feels its 150 minutes, and it’s a long haul for grade school-aged children. But adults and those in middle and high school may find the show enhances their appreciation of the upcoming holiday.

Additional Information:


Produced by: Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through July 3.

Cost: $14 to $50.

Where: Benedum Center, Seventh Street at Penn Avenue, Downtown.

Details: (412) 456-6666 or .

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