1776 – the Musical

I have my thoughts about blind casting impugning the intentions of authors and/or in conflict with social mores of depicted eras, and of hiring for color/nationality sake as if meeting a quota, eschewing talent. With these in mind, there was skepticism about 1776 cast as it is with actors “who identify as female, transgender, and nonbinary” …yet I exited smiling.

The company as a whole is immensely talented. Direction is imaginative, often wry or raunchy and lively. Production is aesthetically appealing. Even exaggerated, the story comes across clearly. I was conjecturing whether Jefferson’s pregnancy indicated his liaison with the slave Sally Hemings or the birth of the Declaration when I learned Davis is, in fact, pregnant.

Crystal Lucas-Perry (John Adams) and the Company

Among other things, I learned Benjamin Franklin – Pennsylvania (Patrena Murray, with great finesse/timing) acted as John Adams’ (Crystal Lucas-Perry) Sancho Panza in pursuit of the Declaration; that Thomas Jefferson – Virginia (Elizabeth A. Davis) was a quiet man pressed into authoring the document and spent considerable time with his violin (the actress plays well); that Edward Rutledge – South Carolina (Sara Porkalob) forced removal of a paragraph disavowing slavery; (there were, in fact, 85 changes to the original draft); that Robert Livingston – New York (Gisela Adisa) had to constantly abstain from voting for lack of direction from the state’s government, and that John Dickinson – Pennsylvania (a believably patrician Carolee Carmello) never voted Yay.

Much of the writing is redolent. Issues brought to the supposedly governing body like the death of a mule seem a ridiculous misuse of time while indicating the way congress was employed before war. (Curiously there’s no mention of Britain’s aggression, part of the reason the “auspicious” body was formed.) Benjamin Franklin’s wily solutions to political disagreement ring true to character as does his more sophisticated take on things. John Adams’ well documented relationship to and correspondence with his wife Abigail (Allyson Kaye Daniel, fine vocals) speaks to time spent away from home and family.

Songs illuminate. “Sit Down, John” is just fun, but establishes Adams’ annoyance factor among peers. The moving “Momma Look Sharp” about young soldiers who disappeared before needing to shave, is gorgeously performed tonight by Imani Pearl Williams. “Molasses to Rum,” relating the complicity of the north where use of slaves provided creature comforts is chillingly well served by Sara Porkalob who also wields an excellent southern accent. African drums and a staged auction place the subject front and center. “The slavery clause has to go,” Franklin reluctantly tells Adams. “It’s a luxury we can’t afford.”

Elizabeth A. Davis (Jefferson), Patrena Murray (Benjamin Franklin), Crystal Lucas-Perry (John Adams)

Humor emerges in a discussion about our national bird-dove, turkey or eagle and in Adams’ shock that Jefferson and his wife lay behind closed doors in daylight. Sexual innuendo emerges among the “good old boys” at Pennsylvania’s State House and blossoms with Martha Jefferson’s double entendre “He Plays the Violin.” (Eryn LeCroy is marvelous.)

Like today, few in Congress seem sufficiently affected by “crippling taxes, the curbing of rights, and pillaged resources” on which Adams bases his campaign for independence – to take action. None seem concerned about constant dispatches from General Washington describing an exhausted, starving, threadbare army or the landing of British ships. “The man would depress a hyena,” Franklin quips. “Is Anybody There?” Adams sings. Drawing a parallel, each representative is concerned only with his state’s commerce and his own job. Legal tricks to postpone votes might be contemporary.

Like today, north and south seem on the brink of tearing our nation apart, something brought to a head with the Civil War. Like today, apparently 1/3 of Congress is absent during pivotal times. “There are not enough men with property in America to dictate policy,” Franklin assures Adams. No longer the case. Unlike today, congressmen with integrity are, in that moment, brought to reason.

Sara Porkalob (Edward Rutledge) and the Company

An actor friend is sure audience reinterprets lyrics because of the nature (ie sex) of the cast. I disagree. Young people, however, might be distracted by the disconnect between sight and history making the piece less viable to those who might benefit from it most.. Hamilton has no such issues.

Director Jeffrey L. Page has brought precision and creativity to movement (even above and below tables at which members sit) and with Diane Paulus, regulates pacing as evocatively as chaos. Primary characters are invested.

The minimalism of Scott Pask’s set design works to spotlight people and events. A low-hung, ersatz patchwork curtain has multiple uses. Philadelphia furniture couldn’t be simpler or cheaper looking. Projections (David Bengali) are kept to a contributory minimum until a montage of history going forward.

Emilio Sosa’s amalgam of contemporary and period costume – waistcoats over varied white blouses, leggings made to look like breeches when white knee socks are pulled up, and buckled shoes (we watch the cast shed sneakers for these – is attractive and sufficient to the period. A single, uber-feminine dress is lovely.

Orchestrations by John Clancy and music direction by Ryan Cantwell adds a great deal.

Dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser does a particularly fine job with Scottish and southern accents – though missing is New England’s Massachusetts sound.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Roundabout Theatre Company presents
1776 – the Musical
Music and Lyrics – Sherman Edwards
Book – Peter Stone
Directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus
American Airlines Theatre

About Alix Cohen (1429 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.