1776 delivers patriotic, playful production
Cross casting defies sexism inherent in the script
Performed by the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players
Directed by Emma Brown
Written by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone
Ran August 12 - 13 at 8 p.m., August 14 at 2 p.m.
In Kresge Little Theater
In the midst of oppressive August heat, the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players took audiences back to another sweltering summer in a different northern city. They delivered three sold-out performances of Edwards and Stone’s 1776.
The musical, which follows the founding fathers as they debate the “resolution on independency” in June and July of 1776, shone most in its humorous moments but also managed to be serious when warranted.
The banter between John Adams (Anna-Constantia Richardson), Benjamin Franklin (Michael DeFillippi), and others, especially Thomas Jefferson (Sara Haugland) and Richard Henry Lee (Dannie Smith), produced loud rumbles of laughter from the audience.
The actress who played Adams certainly convinced me that he was obnoxious and disliked in the Continental Congress (despite the fact that Wikipedia says this is not historically accurate).
The womanizing Benjamin Franklin loomed as large on this stage as he ever does in history. He provided a counterpoint to Adams’s constant impatience and antagonism. And for all his seeming levity, it was totally believable that his character could severely scold Adams when he needed it.
Thomas Jefferson had fewer lines, instead allowing his facial expressions to speak for him. And speak they did. It was apparent from Jefferson’s face what he thought of every other person onstage. The actress who played him really perfected the scowl and the look of disdain.
I was disappointed that Lee has such a small part, only appearing in the first act. The actress infused an infectious enthusiasm into the role. His genuine-lee good-natured bluster made you forgive him for his enormous ego. “The Lees of Old Virginia” was my favorite song of the whole musical.
Cross casting defied some of the sexist attitudes in the script. In 1776, women are either devoted wives or sex objects. As the director notes in the program, the musical has only two female characters, and “one is portrayed as a romantic fantasy” while the other is “a matron waiting patiently for her loving husband to return.”
The most notable example of this might be the song about how Jefferson “plays the violin.” Adams and Franklin ask why Martha (Meghan Jolliffe) is so attracted to Jefferson, and she admits he has never wooed her with words. Then she pauses and sings that instead that he plays the violin — surely a euphemism. Martha’s only role in the musical is to sing this song.
Casting women as some of the congressmen helped ameliorate the effects of reducing women to such simplistic roles.
The singing in the musical was excellent. The cross casting added to this as well, producing more variation in octaves than a typical production of 1776. The singer who played Abigail Adams (J. Deschene) particularly stood out, belting powerful renditions of “Till Then” and “Yours Yours Yours.”
I also noted that, interestingly, unlike other recent MIT student group productions I’ve attended, much of the cast and crew of 1776 were both non-students and not affiliated with MIT.
The orchestra was lovely and patriotic. I especially enjoyed the percussion by Jake Gunter ’18.
The lighting, designed by James Fowler, accented the production in a delightfully subtle way, such as in the scene where a fight breaks out on the Congress floor. The lights took on a reddish tint as the fight heated up but reverted to white when the congressmen calmed down.
One of the only quibbles I had with the otherwise excellent production was with the age makeup. Wrinkles looked like they had been drawn on with black sharpie, most notably on Franklin’s forehead.
The set even had a window that could open up when the congressmen demanded it, even though there were “too many flies.” What a relatable conundrum, even in our modern times. Especially here in the northeast, where not all buildings have air conditioning.