"1776," through July 15, CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, 525 N. 400 West, Centerville, (801-298-1302 or www.centerpointtheatre.org)
Near the end of the musical “1776,” Benjamin Franklin asks, “What will posterity think we were, demigods? We’re men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous god would have allowed.”
He’s addressing John Adams, but the statement is an obvious nod — and admonition — to the audience. The founders of America weren’t anything more than human, and they were just as likely to engineer mistakes as they were miracles.
That’s a message CenterPoint Legacy Theatre delivers particularly well. While the musical is ostensibly about the creation and ratification of the Declaration of Independence, audiences will be most struck by the humanity presented in a show that otherwise feels like an especially engaging history lesson. With “1776,” the cast and crew must strive for a difficult balance between educating the audience and entertaining it.
As such, “1776” is a play that relies heavily on the passion of its actors. There’s not as much music as one would normally expect from a musical, and the subject matter is more dry than, say, the tale of a couple of witches in Oz or the hip-hop rendition of yet another story about America’s founders. But CenterPoint Theatre’s cast delivers. The singing may not be perfect and the dancing may sometimes be a little out of sync, but the emotion is apparent. For the purposes of the performance, the actors are the characters they portray. It’s like watching a history book come to life (though perhaps with more inaccuracies).
The standout performance of the night was Taylor Smith (T/Th/S) with “Molasses to Rum,” which is perhaps the best song ever written about the colonial triangle trade. Smith, as South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, sings about the slave trade while offering an ultimatum: remove the clause in the declaration opposing slavery or lose the South’s support. The scene is full of tension, and it’s an impressive break from the comedy featured in the rest of the show.
Credit, too, has to go to the technical crew for the set design. The set is fairly simple and almost never changes, but the crew makes use of what they have. Cleverly incorporated into the set’s windows are television screens that, for most of the play, show the weather and time of day outside, but during some scenes show videos and pictures to add to the performance. The use of the screens is most notable during the song “Is Anybody There?” in which John Adams reflects on the future he sees for America while videos of fireworks and American landmarks play behind him. The anachronism works, adapting the play’s historical focus to a message for the present.
While “1776” may not become your favorite musical about the founding of America (there are at least four), CenterPoint Theatre’s performance is charming and well worth the time. Audiences will leave the theater feeling a bit better educated and much more devoted to their country.
“1776” plays at CenterPoint Legacy Theatre through July 15.
Content advisory: “1776” contains some mild adult language and adult themes, including references to alcohol, spousal relationships, slavery and war casualties.