If you are a relatively new and small theater company in Chicago that has already established itself as a first-rate presenter of both classic plays and contemporary works, what is the next big hurdle to conquer? Musical theater, of course, but musical theater that is as compelling as drama as it is as music. “1776” is perhaps the “King Lear” of such musicals in that it demands an enormous ensemble cast where no role is small and everyone has to be a first-rate actor and also be able to sing, and in some cases, even dance as well. It’s a tall order, literally, in that Thomas Jefferson is known to be 6’4,” John Adams very short and Ben Franklin and other famous members of Congress have to be visually recognizable and also look comfortable sporting wigs, petticoats and stockings. Kudos to Signal Ensemble Theatre for taking on such a huge show and pulling out all the stops for its first musical and succeeding on virtually every level. Sure, you could quibble that a couple of the solo leads are having trouble sustaining proper pitch—in one case, so much so that the written harmony is given to a duet partner (memo to Signal: a good vocal coach could come in and correct such problems)—but everything else is so right about this production that, like the all-too-human frailties of our founding fathers that “1776” reveals so realistically that you almost forget where this debate over American independence will end up. The brainchild of a history teacher turned pop songwriter who wanted to make history come alive as well as make a statement about what the Revolution could teach us about our involvement in the Vietnam War, it is immensely striking how much the sentiments heard could pass for our current Congress debating the war in Iraq, but in this show, the most eloquent statement is made by a passing page boy (Eric Lindahl) who stops the show with the poignant anti-war ballad “Momma Look Sharp.” It moved Nixon to tears, but you suspect that the current president would send this page boy on a hunting trip with Vice President Cheney. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, (773)278-1500. This production is now closed.