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Modernizing '1776'

.@PBDramaworks brings revolutionary musical "1776" into 21st century

It's as if Palm Beach Dramaworks has given the musical "1776" a good shake, knocking off the dust like detritus from a powdered wig.

From the opening moments of the show running through July 24 in West Palm Beach, the audience is firmly in the here and now, as the stage fills with people in modern-day contemporary clothes, texting on smartphones and pecking away at tablets. Projected above them are the blathering talking heads from 24-hour news channels. There are snipes from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (who seem philosophically perfect for this staging) and even a Brexit cameo, before the video gives way to politically contentious headlines receding all the way to the 18th century.

Yeah sure, it's a trick, but it's a hugely effective one, delivering the audience in a manner of a few minutes back in time to May of 1776 and the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia with all the historic players in place: John Adams (Gary Cadwallader); Benjamin Franklin (Allan Baker); John Hancock (Laura Hodos, doubling as Abigail Adams); Thomas Jefferson (Clay Cartland).

This production about the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence leaves all the important parts in that originally made the Broadway show a hit in 1969. Director Clive Cholerton may have scaled down the cast, but his fresh take ingeniously uses quick-change costumes to give each actor two or three roles, except for Cadwallader as Adams. Without exception, the entire cast are all outstanding, nimbly negotiating the filmic and fluid staging which might trip up lesser actors. Backed by a five-piece band, they infuse the score with the pop of personality.

It's all about perspective with this "1776." Cholerton keeps switching things around with set changes (achieved with the rolling desks, benches, doors and railings) as debating conflagrates into fighting among the 13 colonies' representatives. Most of the dual roles played by a single actor are from opposite sides of the political aisle, where an argument can change trajectory with the exchange of a jacket and a dialect. Those are the times when this "1776" finds something new in the same old song.

"1776" runs through July 24 at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $65 ($10 for students, subject to availability). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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