Review: 1776 at Des Moines Performing Arts

A new telling of one of the most patriotic musicals is playing through March 19.

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In March 0f 2020, Des Moines Performing Arts announced it was bringing the musical "1776" as part of its 2020/2021 Broadway Series. At the time, the production was billed as a pre-Broadway run. What we didn't know at the time was that it would be almost three years before the show was finally able to make it to Des Moines. Going into the opening night performance, I hoped the production would be worth the wait, but I wasn't prepared for the fantastic production I saw on stage.

If you aren't familiar with the show "1776" or the movie by the same name, it tells the story of our founding fathers and the days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We meet loud-mouthed John Adams, who is trying to get Congress to agree to a resolution of independence. The audience quickly learns that as long as Adams is the name on the resolution, it won't pass. So he and Benjamin Franklin convince Virginian Richard Henry Lee to propose the resolution. We know how the show ends, but the hurdles that independence faces lead to conversations that we still have today almost 250 years later.

One of the daunting tasks ahead of any director is how to tell a story audiences already know in a way that asks audiences to look at the content in a new light. For this production, that challenge was tackled by Co-Directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L Page. They have done an exceptional job by taking an approach to casting that has not traditionally been done. The cast identifies as female, trans, and nonbinary, consisting of multiple races and ethnicities. From the top of the show, they acknowledge in their staging that the cast aren't the people who would usually tell these stories.

The non-traditional storytelling doesn't end with the director's approach to acting. The set design by Scott Pask and projections by David Bengali work together to give a modern reimaging of Independence Hall. The set consists of pieces that can be moved around, sometimes within scenes, to provide different perspectives of the discussions onstage. The design also uses fabric drapery along the back and front, which allows for the use of projections and video that celebrates some of the conversations America has had and is still having.

What drew me into this show was the new orchestrations done by John Clancy. The orchestrations do a beautiful job of taking the music of "1776" and finding it for a new generation. It finds its own pomp and fireworks that make even more memorable interpretations of these songs. One of my favorite reimaginings was "Momma Look Sharp," sung in this production by Brooke Simpson as "Courier." I don't want to give too much away, but a moment in the song took me completely by surprise and had me thinking and talking about it for part of the ride home.

This wasn't the only memorable performance of the night. The cast does a fantastic job of bringing these characters to the stage. One of those memorable performances came from Gisela Adisa in the role of John Adams. Her rendition of "Is Anybody There," which has always been a favorite number of mine from the show, was extremely powerful. The longing she brought to the song had the whole audience looking at what America is today and what it could be.

Another fantastic performance came from Julie Cardia, who was performing in the role of John Dickinson for the evening. While Dickenson is an essential role in the show, it's never been a favorite character of mine in the past. There was an eloquence to how she delivered each of her lines throughout the show that had me, as an audience member looking forward to how her character would next challenge John Adams.

Whether it is your first time seeing "1776" or if you are revisiting this show, this production is one for the history books. From the directions to the technical elements to the cast, each piece beautifully comes together to challenge the audience. They challenge us to look at our history differently and see what our country can still become. This production plays for a limited time at Des Moines Performing arts through March 19. To learn more information or buy tickets, visit the link below.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus


Review Roundup: 1776 Launches National Tour

1776 officially opened on February 16, 2023, at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia, PA, and will make limited engagement stops at major cities across North America. Read the reviews for 1776 on tour here!

Photos: Go Inside Opening Night of the 1776 National Tour

Get a first look at opening night red carpet photos of the new national tour of 1776!

Photos: Get a First Look at the National Tour of 1776

Get a first look at production photos of the national tour of 1776!

Elizabeth A. Davis Welcomes Baby Girl the Day After Closing 1776

Elizabeth A. Davis, who performed pregnant during the entire Broadway run of 1776, gave birth to a baby girl one day after the show's closing! 

From This Author - DC Felton

David Felton has been involved in theatre since his middle school production of The Wizard of Oz. Throughout high school he stayed onstage, and once he got to college he started exploring thebackstage... (read more about this author)


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