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Geva celebrates Independence Day 

Geva's 30th season ends with the perfect show for the 4th of July. But though the plot of 1776 ends on July 4, Geva's extended run finishes on June 29. The production is dedicated to author Peter Stone, Oscar winner, Emmy winner, and Tony winner, who died only a few weeks ago. His book and Sherman Edwards' lyrics tell the story of the First Continental Congress struggling to declare independence from England.

            To me, Stone's and Edwards' admired, crafty writing is a little condescending to please audiences by "humanizing" such worshipped forefathers as Ben Franklin, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. We see Franklin as a randy old man who would rather drink, womanize, and exchange witticisms than obviously fight for a cause. Adams is repeatedly called "loud, bad-tempered, and despised" by everyone, including himself. And despite what we now know about his slave/mistress, Jefferson was apparently motivated to write the Declaration of Independence because he was so horny in Philadelphia, away from his wife.

            These men's eloquence was legendary. (Jefferson repeated one of his famed sentences in a letter to Adams: "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.") But here they talk real ordinary, just like regular folks.

            Once Act II gets the debates and oppositions steaming, the cute stuff isn't necessary. Everyone doubts whether Congress's many internal conflicts will ever be resolved to agree to a break with the mother country. And the drama becomes intensely stirring. By the time we reach an unexpectedly simple, dignified conclusion (no song and dance finale about fighting to be free), we'd have to be sour and unpatriotic indeed not to be moved and pleased.

            Director Mark Cuddy has assembled a remarkably fine cast and balanced their work into a notable ensemble. Three men --- Skip Greer, Christopher Gurr, and Tim Ocel --- have memorably directed plays at Geva; who knew they could sing? Gurr, in fact, does a potent job acting and singing Rutledge of South Carolina's very demanding "Molasses to Rum" --- a defiant reminder of New England's share in the slave trade.

            Of the almost 30 first-rate performers, many are familiar from previous fine work at Geva. Remi Sandri, in his fifth major role here, plays Loyalist John Dickinson, the leader of the opposition to independence, in a surprisingly heroic manner. David Silberman, significant in a dozen character roles at Geva, is dryly amusing at first, then builds his Benjamin Franklin to the expected stature of a great man. John Bolton makes Richard Henry Lee funny enough for his big, grandstanding number yet manages a handsome portrait of the celebrated Virginia aristocrat. Brigid Brady is bright and lovely as Abigail Adams. And the divine Christa Moore, Geva's Liza in My Fair Lady and Lucille (who spoke only French) in Garden, must like working here, because, welcome as this Broadway star is, her role as Martha Jefferson allows her only a fairly silly little song and a few minutes onstage.

            Moving up from smaller roles, young Matthew Erickson makes a very strong impression as the courier from General Washington's troops, and is touchingly effective in the song about a dead soldier, "Momma Look Sharp."

            New to Geva are the two male leads. Handsome Steve Wilson is a dashing Jefferson but should beat up his wigmaker. James Brennan's richly detailed and dynamically sung John Adams not only dominates the show, as Adams should, but throws humorous doubt on the repeated comment about how obnoxious Adams is. Brennan needs no spotlight to illuminate the stage.

            I like GW Mercier's sets, but find his costumes uneven. Some are elegant, like Martha's, or realistic and telling, like the Courier's. Some look like bargains pulled from stock. Phil Monat's lighting designs are solid as usual; Monat rarely calls attention to his work. Neither does Don Kot, but his musical direction is an important local asset. I'm not mad about all the musical stagings, but Cuddy has brought us a satisfying revival of this award-winning show, splendidly cast.

1776, bookby Peter Stone, Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards, plays at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, through June 29. Performances are Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. No public performances Wednesday, May 28 - Monday, June 2; dates reserved for student matinees only. Information and tickets ($17.50 - $51.50): 585-232-GEVA (4382), www.gevatheatre.org.

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