Tuesday, October 18, 2022

1776 (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

I approached Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus’ all female -- that is to say, female, transgender, and nonbinary -- production of the enduring 1969 Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone musical with no little trepidation. Surely this was wokeness run amok. 

In the Playbill, Roundabout Artistic Director Todd Haines writes of placing “our shared foundational mythology in the hands of a talented group of artists who reflect multiple representations of race, gender, and ethnicity.” And Page speaks of blurring “the lines between the occluded and the included,” and illuminating “new dimensions of our national story.” And so on.

That sounded like much the same familiar rhetoric heralding the arrival of “Hamilton” and other shows in its wake. But, much to my surprise, I found this “1776” a thoroughly enjoyable and commendable piece of work which does respectful justice to the show, while at the same time, yes, validating the creative team’s stated goals.

Casting and overall concept notwithstanding, the production is still very much the show as written. The narrative unfolds in its customary way, and there’s no camping or sense of “look at us; we’re dressing up as men.” This is a straight reading of Peter Stone’s book, though the staging takes a very fresh approach. Page has devised much clever choreography and coordinated movement which gives the production an admirable fluidity even as, of course, Philadelphia’s Chamber of the Continental Congress remains the centerpiece.


For the record, the production marks the second time around for “1776” at the Roundabout. Their excellent 1997 revival (which transferred to Broadway for a healthy run of 300 plus performances) was cast along traditional lines, and resulted in a fine recording. 

Here, Scott Pask’s versatile set design -- which also accommodates the Jefferson house, and various Philadelphia locales -- includes diaphanous curtains pulled across the stage during scene changes, and lively projections by David Bengali. Of the central characters, Crystal Lucas-Perry captures the irascibility of John Adams. Patrena Murray is the model of a curmudgeonly Benjamin Franklin, rather in the mode of Whoopi Goldberg. And Elizabeth A. Davis makes a patrician, appropriately recalcitrant Thomas Jefferson. 

The score, though reorchestrated by John Clancy, remains a delight. The opening sequence “Sit Down, John,” and then John Adams’ “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve” has lost its operetta-like period charm, which I missed, but thereafter, the arrangements adhere more satisfyingly to the original in spirit, albeit with a piquant freshness.

Thus, John and Abigail’s “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours” play as touchingly as ever in the hands of Lucas-Perry and Allyson Kaye Daniel. And Martha Jefferson’s “He Plays the Violin,” wherein she explains the charms of husband Tom, is sung quite beautifully and traditionally by Eryn LeCroy, though with perhaps too obvious an emphasis on the double entendre lyrics. Shawna Hamic’s Richard Henry Lee delivers “The Lees of Old Virginia” with its customary bravado. 

Dramatically, Carolee Carmello is very strong in the important role of Pennsylvania's John Dickinson, who stubbornly holds out on declaring independence, and leads a highly choreographed revamp of “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.”  Liz Mikel’s John Hancock (who served as President of the Congress) is also a strong presence. 

The Courier’s anti-war ballad, “Momma Look Sharp” is sung in a gorgeously orchestrated choral arrangement, but at the same time, I did think Imani Pearl Williams’ words were rather clouded by the florid arrangement and her soulful embellishments. And Sara Porkalob (as Edward Rutledge) leads an elaborate and powerful staging of “Molasses to Rum.” 

The signing of the Declaration at the show’s end is as moving as ever, and my Sunday matinee audience gave the show a rousing ovation. While I wouldn’t want this version to become the standard performing edition of “1776,” and nor will it be, for the time being, it’s an exciting variation well worth your time.

(American Airlines Theatre, 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through January 8)

Photo by Joan Marcus: The company of Roundabout Theatre Company's 1776

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