Congressional deadlock is nothing new. Neither are obstinate orators, peevish outbursts and debates that rage for days on end.
In “1776,” the Founding Fathers establish a blueprint for the nation's independence — and its enduring political dialogues. This “musical play,” written in 1969 with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone, gets a blue-ribbon staging by director Frank Galati in the American Conservatory Theater production that opened the company's fall season last week.
Wry, monumental and aptly long-winded, it's an engaging reminder of how little our political discourse has changed.
The setting is familiar. The Second Congressional Congress, assembled in the Pennsylvania State House during the hot summer of 1776, is poised to throw off the yoke of British rule and give birth to a new nation. As they gather to craft the Declaration of Independence, we become witnesses to their interior struggles — the factions defined by personalities, ideologies, economics, and the split between North and South.
The fights are mostly verbal, although the delegates aren't above the occasional physical scuffle. Meanwhile, the days tick off, with John Adams fuming that they “piddle, twiddle and resolve” but never solve anything.
The stakes are high. England's forces are decimating the rebels, as outlined in posts from George Washington and the song “Momma, Look Sharp.” Slavery, described in harsh detail in the Act 2 showstopper “Molasses to Rum,” is the issue that threatens the entire enterprise.
Which is not to say that “1776” isn't funny. Stone fills the dialogue with humor — puns, insults and snappy double takes. Edwards' appealing songs — a vaudevillian mix of ballads, patter songs and soft-shoe numbers accompanied by a pit band under conductor Michael Rice — arrive at welcome intervals. What other musical rhymes “mania” and “Pennsylvania”?
The characters are well-drawn, and Galati's staging, introduced at Florida's Asolo Repertory Theater last season, makes them vibrant. Performed on Russell Metheny's tiered wood-and-marble set, the actors give committed performances. John Hickok's Adams, Andrew Boyer's Benjamin Franklin and Brandon Dahlquist's Thomas Jefferson are standouts.
Steve Hendrickson's Andrew (McNair) and Alex Shafer's Thomas (McKean) supply bursts of humor; Abby Mueller's Abigail Adams and Andrea Prestinario's Martha Jefferson offer the perspective of the long-suffering wives.
It's a winning show, one that builds to a surprisingly moving finale. In the end, “1776” gives us a Congress that actually got things done. These days, that seems almost revolutionary.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 6
Tickets: $25 to $140
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org