You don’t have to be a theater fan to know of the massive popularity of “Hamilton: an American Musical.”
Since it debuted off-Broadway last year, it’s become an international hit, moving to Broadway and garnering a slew of awards for its creator and original star Lin-Manuel Miranda. As the other great modern-era musical about the Founding Fathers, “1776” has enjoyed a resurgence of interest, including the production playing at Virginia Repertory’s November Theatre.
And what a production it is. Packed with some of Richmond’s finest male actors and playing against Rich Mason’s handsome Pennsylvania Statehouse set, this production soars from its opening, “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down,” through its closing, “Is Anybody There?” Directed by Debra Clinton, the show is filled with charm, wit and history.
It’s a sweltering summer in Philadelphia, and between the heat, the flies and each other, the members of the Second Continental Congress can’t seem to agree on anything, much less the Declaration of Independence. Half of the delegates want to stay under British rule, half desire independence, and New York can’t make up its mind about anything. What’s a Founding Father to do?
If you’re the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams (Scott Wichmann), you team up with the politically savvy Benjamin Franklin (Jason Marks) and detached thinker Thomas Jefferson (Landon Nagel) in the hopes of persuading Congress. The trio -- clad in Sue Griffin’s period-appropriate costumes -- play well off each other, with Wichmann and Marks reprising some of their dynamic from 2012’s “The Producers.” Bryant Pugh is hilarious as the dimwitted dandy Richard Henry Lee, and Alexander Sapp is all sophisticated smugness as the Southern aristocrat Edward Rutledge, wowing in his barnstorming rendition of “Molasses to Rum.”
In an era when many classic musicals are starting to show their age, it’s nice to see that “1776’s” mix of irreverence and respect for America’s founders is engaging and ageless, apart from having too few roles for women. But the two women cast in this production more than pull their weight, especially Sarah Walston’s Abigail Adams. She sings like a lark and gives Adams something to fight for. Christie Jackson also does well in her short appearance as Martha Jefferson, charming in “He Plays the Violin.”
“Cool, Cool Considerate Men” -- a number so politically charged that the Nixon administration tried to have the song cut before “1776” was performed at the White House -- still bears its teeth for those on “the right, ever to the right” of politics. And for all of its silliness, the musical still has its serious moments. “Mama Look Sharp” and the ominous blaring trumpet at the show’s close are reminders that this was a musical created in the era of Vietnam.
Clinton and Sandy Dacus’ lively musical direction keep things moving right along to the show’s conclusion (Spoiler alert: They sign the Declaration of Independence). With its excellent performances, direction and production, this “1776” is as cheerful and entertaining as an episode of “Schoolhouse Rock.”
Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “1776” plays through Oct. 23 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.