Review: Broadway-Bound 1776 at the American Repertory Theater doesn’t feel so revolutionary
You were waiting, perhaps, for the second coming of hamilton? Or even a finalist to the most recent enough? Broadway revival of the 1969 classic by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus 1776 at the American Repertory Theater is neither, though it deserves points for a non-traditional cast. The evocative stage curtain, a patchwork of faded American flags (minimalistly set by Scott Pask), part to reveal a huge multiracial and multiethnic company – all cis women, trans women or non-binary women – dressed as motley rehearsal mufti. The actors lose their kicks, put on buckled shoes, roll up white hoses, put on frock coats – and the game is on. If only the rest of the production remained as vivid and arresting as this framing device.
“Hamilton” cleverly probed a lesser-known chapter in US history, “Suffs” the long-running feminist revolution, an uprising still ongoing, with an increasingly punitive jury. Certainly, the directors’ “statement casting” is meant to further that latter cause. However, a salient problem with their perhaps too serious attempt to breathe new life into this seldom-recovered work is that audiences are well aware, from the outset, of how the story will unfold, and the directors, what whatever their revolutionary intention. , are bound to adhere to writer Peter Stone’s somewhat antiquated script and Sherman Edward’s hit songs. They haven’t really found a way to heighten the suspense or make good use of the dissonant casting, except perhaps to suggest, obliquely, that if women had been in charge at the time, they probably would have done the work with less fuss and less theatrics.
In recounting the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Stone and Edwards introduced twenty delegates (out of the 56 actual signers), providing each with signature quirks. What little drama does arise largely consists of interpersonal squabbles and the equivalent of oral positions. The nitpicking and counting of votes quickly becomes tedious, as it surely did in real life, and the debates, peppered with ostensibly helpful factual allusions, begin to feel like academic trappings. The most engrossing conflict is reserved for the end, when pro and anti-independence factions debate whether to remove Thomas Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery (we also know how it happened: the scars linger on this day).
Throughout, Crystal Lucas-Perry does a yeoman’s job as pro-independence firebrand John Adams, essentially the only character with a complex line. After the band’s opening number, “Sit Down, John”, Adams’ co-workers continue to mock him as “obnoxious and hated”. This feeling, however, is not taken up by the public: Lucas-Perry has a voice as clear and imperious as the Liberty Bell. Adams’ tender exchange of letters with his stuck-at-home wife, Abigail, is equally enjoyable. (Remember “remember the ladies”? The co-directors made a welcome addition to the original script – perhaps hoping to offset some of the sexism lurking there). Lucas-Perry is paired beautifully with Allyson Kaye Daniel, portraying a warm, intelligent, supportive, albeit “cheeky” woman.
It may help to keep in mind that this work was created at the start of the sexual revolution. Much of the supposed humor comes across as childish and even downright scary. Case in point: a scene in which Adams and Ben Franklin (the inexplicably boring, puppet Patrena Murray) wait while Thomas Jefferson (the resolutely callous Elizabeth A. Davis) deflowers his young wife (Eryn LeCroy). Franklin’s comment upon seeing her for the first time – “And whose little girl are you?” – has aged particularly badly. The couple are eagerly waiting for Jefferson to embark on a first draft of the Declaration. Soon, a freshly devirginized Mrs. Jefferson emerges screaming the orgasmic panegyric “He’s playing the violin” (cue demo with a suggestively flowery bow). If you fail to catch the gist, Mrs. J even enacts a faint “little death” mid-aria.
Shawna Hamic has an all-too-brief stellar moment at the top of the series. She’s knocked out as the exuberant Richard Henry Lee, whose self-aggrandizing anthem “The Lees of Old Virginia” brings the house down – but only fleetingly-Lee (Lee is exceedingly proud of his gift for the game of words) and very attentive to Lee. Several of the delegates pay dubious homage to the ladies by alluding to their lust. Mr. Lee begins this ball by noticing his eagerness to return home in order to – gesture of humpback – fulfill his manly duty and “refresh the woman”. Were 18th century men really so complacent, or so overtly lustful at work?
Near the end, Salome B. Smith, playing a courier in George Washington’s beleaguered Continental Army, excitedly delivers the beautiful (but out of nowhere) ballad, “Momma, Look Sharp,” a fallen soldier’s lament. in combat. Sara Porkalob, playing the role of a pro-slavery delegate from South Carolina, brings the focus back to the subject by amply mixing in “Molasses to Rum”, which alludes to the North’s full participation in the pernicious Triangle Trade. This group number is hauntingly directed by co-director and otherwise lighthearted choreographer Jeffrey L. Page.
There are several heart-pounding moments packed into this two-and-a-half-hour mish-mash, and plenty of fun to be had in the individual performances. Even so, what struck music-makers half a century ago as revolutionary has lost much of its incendiary momentum.