BWW Review: 1776: A Musical For The Ages
Book by Peter Stone, Music & Lyrics by Sherman Edwards, Based on a concept by Sherman Edwards, Co-Directed by Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards, Music Direction by Todd C. Gordon, Choreographed by Kelli Edwards; Scenic Designer, Cristina Todesco; Costume Designer, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Designer, Alberto Segarra; Production Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle; Assistant Stage Manager, Brian M. Robillard; Sound Mix Engineer, Renee Goudreau
CAST (in alphabetical order): Rachel Belleman, Nick Chieffo, Aimee Doherty, Benjamin Evett, Alex Hatcher, Riley Fox Hillyer, Ricardo Holguín, Shannon Lee Jones, Liliane Klein, Steven Martin, Todd McNeel, Jr., Luis Negrón, Gary Thomas Ng, Pier Lamia Porter, KP Powell, Dan Prior, Jane Reagan, Simon Rogers, Carolyn Saxon, Cheryl D. Singleton, Felton Sparks, Bobbie Steinbach, Alexandra Teman
1776 is a show that appreciates in value and import when viewed in the context of its time. It opened on Broadway in 1969 when Richard Nixon was president, the controversial war in Vietnam raged on, and civil unrest was the domestic order of the day. With that backdrop, it's popularity was unexpected, yet it ran for 1,217 performances and won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Five decades later, the current occupant of the White House attacks the Constitution and defies the rule of law, the post-World War II order is in a shambles, and uber-partisan politics rack our deeply-divided populace. Seems like an ideal time for a remount of the story of our Founding Fathers, and the New Repertory Theatre production has found a formula to make it fresh, exhilarating, and inclusive.
With book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, 1776 is based on the events surrounding the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the hot spring and summer of that year. John Adams (Ben Evett) holds center stage as he alternately pleads, cajoles, and demands that his fellow representatives declare independency from England and the rule of tyrannical King George III. Cut from a similar cloth as Alexander Hamilton, Adams' strong personality (read: obnoxious) often works against him in the dogged pursuit of his honorable goal, but, with no less a collaborator than sage Benjamin Franklin (Bobbie Steinbach), an articulate and impassioned document penned by Thomas Jefferson (KP Powell), and practical, yet warm support from his loving wife Abigail (Carolyn Saxon) on the homefront, the Massachusetts delegate prevails.
Going in to 1776, we know how it ends, as well as certain factoids about some of the major players, but there are many details along the way that we have forgotten or never learned. Consider this an opportunity for a refresher course; it is didactic, but never pedantic. In fact, under co-directors Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards (who also choreographed), the New Rep production stands out for its interpretation of the characters as accessible and grounded, not staid bureaucrats stuffed into period costumes. One could say that 1776 was the Hamilton of its day, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has credited it with paving the way for his opus. Although all of the historical characters were white men (except for the two wives portrayed), and there was no non-traditional casting in the original, this ensemble reflects the diversity of today's America. Its 23-member cast includes ten women playing men, one man playing a woman, and ten people of color.
1776 runs about three hours with one intermission, but the staging and movement are kinetic. Each actor has a chair, and they frequently carry them from one spot to another, or lift and relocate them during a song, evoking a game of musical chairs. The highlights of Edwards' choreography are Martha Jefferson's (Dan Prior) joyous waltz ("He Plays The Violin") and a minuet danced by the Tory contingent ("Cool, Cool Considerate Men") that epitomizes their ties to their nation of origin. For a show of this length, it is unusual that there are only a baker's dozen musical numbers. There is one stretch of nearly forty minutes during which there are no songs, but the drama builds considerably during that period as the Congress is stalemated (sound familiar?).
Todd C. Gordon conducts and plays piano with the seven-piece orchestra that finds the right touch to convey the mood of each song, whether it be the raucous opening number "Sit Down, John" (Evett and Company), the barn-burning "The Lees of Old Virginia," (Pier Lamia Porter, Steinbach, Evett), the romantic "Yours, Yours, Yours," (Evett, Saxon), or the haunting "Momma Look Sharp" (Steven Martin). The cast is bursting with strong singers who form an audacious chorus, and there are noteworthy vocal performances by Aimee Doherty as Pennsylvanian John Dickinson ("Cool, Cool Considerate Men"), Martin's poignant "Momma Look Sharp," and Shannon Lee Jones (Edward Rutledge) in a powerhouse rendition of the scathing "Molasses To Rum."
Cheryl D. Singleton (John Hancock) and Luis Negrón (Charles Thomson), as president and secretary of the Congress respectively, are both steady and dignified, causing one to wistfully wish that they might preside over the current body. They have to deal with an eclectic group, including: Stephen Hopkins (rambunctious Rachel Belleman), who likes his rum a bit too much; wishy-washy James Wilson (Ricardo Holguín), who is under Dickinson's sway; and feisty Scotsman Thomas McKean (Liliane Klein, great brogue). The remaining delegates are Georgia gentleman Lyman Hall (Alex Hatcher), Joseph Hewes (Todd McNeel, Jr.), physically ailing Caesar Rodney (Gary Thomas Ng), Samuel Chase (Jane Reagan), Josiah Bartlett (Simon Rogers), John Witherspoon (Felton Sparks), and George Read (Alexandra Teman). Nick Chieffo and Riley Fox Hillyer alternate in the role of Andrew McNair, the custodian.
Evett commands the stage from his opening monologue, with energy and passion to spare. He struts and yells and sulks and revels, all in service to creating the singular character who had such an impact on the birth of a new nation. Adams and Franklin could not have been more different in temperament, but they shared the same vision and show themselves to be a terrific team. What she lacks in physical stature, Steinbach makes up for with a performance of grand proportions. She has a twinkle in her eye, but also conveys the gravitas of an elder statesman. Saxon delivers Abigail's warmth and resolve, and doubles as the Connecticut delegate, Roger Sherman. In the hands of Powell, Jefferson comes across as stolid, and a little bit immature, but he grows throughout the process of debating his Declaration. Powell and Prior share great chemistry as the young couple reunited after a long separation.
Cristina Todesco's minimalist set features a backdrop mural depicting the Founding Fathers, faux brick flooring, and a giant Union Jack descending from the scaffolding surrounding the stage. Scenes are set apart by variations in Alberto Segarra's effective lighting design. On either side of the stage, there are coat racks that hold the costume changes for the actors playing more than one role. Designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt provides an array of period costumes with a slightly modern touch, mostly in dark or neutral tones, but with an occasional splash of unexpected color. Sound engineer Renee Goudreau successfully handles voice, music, and the important clanging of the Liberty Bell as the signers affix their names to the Declaration at the conclusion.
So far this season, New Rep has presented plays dealing with the hot button issue of straight, white male privilege, and a historical drama about the cost of defiance in Nazi Germany. As a holiday gift, a hit musical without a hint of any Nazis is much appreciated. More importantly, revisiting the origin story and watching the birth of our democracy at a time when it is under siege, is a much-needed reminder of what the Founding Fathers intended as the promise of these United States of America. Clearly, they were not perfect and made mistakes (chief among them, removing the call to free the slaves), but they accomplished something that changed the world. New Rep's 1776 builds on the change we wish to see in the theater world.