Review: ‘1776’ Comes To Life With Women Playing Founding Fathers

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A moment arrives in the deeply moving Broadway-bound revival of “1776,” when conscience and the senses are assaulted by the brutal force of a boxer’s upper cut. This happens during Sara Porkalob’s crackling delivery of “Molasses to Rum,” the Act 2 song scathingly denouncing the Continental Congress’ Northern delegates for their hypocrisy about slavery.

“Who sends the ships from Boston, laden with Bibles and rum? Porkalob’s Edward Rutledge sings with a defiant sneer, like a curtain over parts of the Loeb Drama Center stage to reveal four-stacked barrels of rum. “Who is toasting Côte d’Ivoire? Hi Africa, the slavers have arrived! New England with Bibles – and rum!

It’s not just Sherman Edwards’ lyrics that disturb with new verve, especially in a New England locale like Boston’s neighbor Cambridge. The cast of this musical about settlers bickering and haggling over the creation of the Declaration of Independence are now all female or non-binary. Reimagined by directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, the story is claimed in a fresh and exciting way by 22 actors – many of them artists of color – whose rights were essentially excluded from America’s founding document.

Again and again, the words first spoken on a Broadway stage in 1969 resonate in this 2022 version with a more inclusive spirit. “The eagle inside belongs to us!” sing John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry), Ben Franklin (Patrena Murray) and Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) in “The Egg”, a number that metaphorically bears witness to the emergence of a new country. Page and Paulus manage in this production of the American Repertory Theater – which Paulus directs – to chart America’s baby steps even more idealistically than the framers (or for that matter, the screenwriters of the series, Edwards and Peter Stone).

Tony-winning director finds rewarding way to build innovative new ‘1776’ during pandemic

That ART should be the launching pad for this reinvented “1776” seems entirely relevant, given the historical importance of the city – and its constant interest in its own history. This fascination is playing out right now not only on a stage in Cambridge, but also in Boston proper. As 18th century figures such as Adams, Abilgail Adams (Allyson Kaye Daniel) and John Hancock (Liz Mikel) appear on ART, Bostonians in a more recent struggle materialize across the Charles River in a play at the Huntington Theater Company.

This world premiere, “Common Ground Revisited”, depicts an agonizing chapter in the city’s history, the pitched battle over the court-ordered integration of Boston’s public school system in the mid-1970s. Designed by Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge, and directed by Bensussen, the 2.5-hour production adapts characters from author J. Anthony Lukas’ definitive chronicle “Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families.”

One of the most significant missions of a theater can be to hold a performative mirror to the community in which it exists. “Common Ground Revisited” is this kind of piece, which draws its nourishment from the collective memory and the emotion of its audience. I attended a preview, before the production was officially unveiled to the media, so I will refrain from giving a verdict. But the play’s civic contribution – asking viewers at the Calderwood/BCA complex to reflect on the legacy of that explosive time – lends the proceedings a welcome urgency.

Social relevance was underscored in opening remarks that evening by no less than Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Imagine that: the leader of a major city finding a coin toss important enough to deserve his presence! “We must do everything we can for our arts and culture scene because they are key to our recovery and healing,” Wu said from the stage. “It’s amazing for Boston, to see that on our stage.”

Healing is central to the interwoven stories of “Common Ground Revisited”. It follows three families – a black family of projects; a white working-class family from an American island Irish neighborhood; and an affluent white couple, who arrived during a wave of gentrification – as they become entangled in a deadly brawl. Compulsory busing of school children, ordered to achieve racial balance in schools, has shaken and polarized the city.

A cast of 12 play the myriad characters, as well as themselves, scrutinizing the impact of Lukas’ past and narrative. We discover the roots of an American tribalism that still plagues the city – and in fact, continues to inflame the country. The hopeful core of the play, however, lies in the suggestion that a relentless quest to understand what divides us may be the way to one day bring us together.

Seemingly insurmountable divisions, and the courageous effort to break them, also drive “1776”. It’s not a perfect musical – the first act is extremely gossipy, and attempts to animate the characters lead to a simplified, shorthand caricature: the tipsy Rhode Island delegate (Allison Briner Dardenne) is just waiting for the adjournment in a tavern; Jefferson suffers from sex-deprived writer’s block; the so-called insufferable Adams, we learn by exaggeration, is universally “odious and hated”.

But the show’s strengths – notably Edwards’ wonderful score – outnumber the flaws, and the production percolates through animated performances. Lucas-Perry and Murray, as Adams and Franklin, make an entertaining pair of reluctant allies; Joanna Glushak, playing stubbornly pro-English delegate from Pennsylvania, John Dickinson, authoritatively rallies conservatives in “Cool, Cool Considerate Men”; Shawna Hamic hits the right note of operatic self-esteem in Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee and his solo, “The Lees of Old Virginia.” As the wives of Adams and Jefferson, Allyson Kate Daniel and Eryn LeCroy deliver moving renditions of Edwards’ tender, romantic ballads.

There are actually too many enjoyable performers to list here. Page, also the show’s choreographer, applies fine, stylized flourishes to the movement of the ensemble numbers. In unison, the actors’ transformations occur as they smartly don buckled shoes and slip from modern dress into Emilio Sosa-designed waistcoats. A special shoutout is in order for hair and wig designer Mia Neal, who, instead of powdered wigs, gives each actor a unique and vibrant hairstyle. Still, the one design element I missed was related to the flatness of Scott Pask’s naked sets. A more satisfactory depiction of the room where this happened is needed.

In the end, it is the inspiring cast iron that gives this “1776” its particular revolutionary taste. That the talented ensemble takes an unorthodox approach to historical orthodoxy doesn’t sound like an attempt to rewrite the past. Rather, it is an exhilarating and touching embrace of the possibilities of the future.

1776, music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone. Directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus. With Gisela Adisa, Becca Ayers, Nancy Anderson, Tiffani Barbour, Oneika Phillips, Lulu Picart, Sushma Saha, Brooke Simpson, Salome B. Smith. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Until July 24 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. americanrepertorytheatre.org.

Common ground revisited, designed by Melia Bensussen and Kirsten Greenidge, adapted by Greenidge, directed by Bensussen. Until July 17 at Calderwood/BCA, 527 Tremont St., Boston. huntingtontheatre.org.

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