Years ago Classic Comics, a kind of graphic novel in comic book form, conveyed, in the simplest way, the gist of well-known novels like Ivanhoe and historic events like the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock making them digestible to kids who consumed Superman and Batman comics.
From its first production in 1969, I have looked upon the musical 1776 as a Classic Comic version of the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence: unsubtle, fairly factual and easily digested. The current revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre does nothing to dismiss that first impression, but 1776 hits all the right emotional buttons, especially in its final scene when the almost religious document is signed. This staging stunts the impact by not copying the famous John Trumbull painting which the original and most subsequent productions did.
Directed by Jeffrey L. Page (who also did the simplistic choreography) and Diane Paulus, this production’s well-meaning gimmick is to have all the historic characters played by a “cast that includes multiple representations of race, ethnicity and gender [who] identify as female, transgender and nonbinary,” to quote the exacting language of the production’s press release.
This casting coup works most notably as a political statement, hopefully forcing the audience take a fresh look at the original all-male contingent, however brilliant they may have been, and their flaws. The word “woman” never appears in the Declaration of Independence (nor the Constitution) and the millions of Black slaves were quite purposely and expediently left out of the Declaration. This multi-racial cast is a not-so-subtle slap in their faces.
This large cast of talented performers manage to make all these upright male patriots believable, at least in musical theater terms. Led by the steady Crystal Lucas-Perry as the central figure, John Adams, who is portrayed as the catalyst that forces the Congress to face the much-avoided subject of independence from England, the others are convincing in various degrees.
Musical theater star Carolee Carmello does wonders with the anti-independence character John Dickinson of Pennsylvania who leads the conservative wing of Congress in “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” a quiet paean to moderation in propriety and property. As his Pennsylvania colleague Benjamin Franklin, Patrena Murray is a sardonic delight, the perfect foil to Lucas-Perry’s dour Adams.
The actual author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, is portrayed by a very pregnant Elizabeth A. Davis, an elegant redhead (wig?) who is the calm center of the musical, except when perturbed by sexual frustration, a situation solved by the appearance of his wife Martha (the lovely and lovely-voiced Ariella Serur at the performance I attended).
In the winking, double entendre song, “He Plays the Violin,” sung with the leering Franklin and disapproving Adams, Serur displays superb vocal chops matched by the other woman character, Abigail Adams portrayed by a charming Allyson Kaye Daniel, beautifully tender in her “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours” duets with Lucas-Perry, both based on actual letters that went between the two devoted colonials).
Also a fine singer is Sara Porkalob, powerful in her rendition of Edward Rutledge’s pivotal “Molasses to Rum,” the song that exposes the hypocrisy of the Triangle Trade, supposedly forcing Jefferson to scratch out the anti-slavery wording of his Declaration.
The moving number, “Momma, Look Sharp,” sung by Salome B. Smith as the Courier, is muted by its over-staging as is Adams’ tortured plea, “Is Anybody There?” accompanied by a quick-moving video of all the low points in American history up to the present—overkill, typical of Paulus’ vision of musical theater.
The entire cast enthusiastically inhabit the musical, some better than others, but all with honesty and energy.
Emilio Sosa’s costumes begin with a clever, surprising transformation of the cast from modern dress to the traditional coats and fancy outfits of the colonial period. The costumes give an otherwise drab production some light and color, helped by Jen Schriever’s lighting.
Scott Pask’s set is for functional than period revealing. Two curtains define the space, the front decorated with images of faded Union Jacks and Old Glories. Plain tables and chairs are moved about smartly by the cast, turning the stage into various versions of the Philadelphia meeting hall with projections revealing the dates running up to the approval and signing of the Declaration. Somehow, even with the novelty of the casting this history-making event wasn’t as heart-poundingly satisfying as in other, more conservative versions.
All this gender bending adds little to the impact of this story already pre-loaded with meaning, at least for American audiences.
1776 is a production of the Roundabout Theatre Company and is a limited run. The score by Sherman Edwards and the book by Peter Stone still have the power to move and entertain even though they gloss over and exaggerate the events of 1776.
1776 (through January 8, 2023)
Roundabout Theatre Company and The American Repertory Theater
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission