Arts musical review

Amusing-lee, this musical is a fun-filled romp through history

New Repertory Theater adapts ’1776’ with a refreshingly diverse cast

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John Adams (Benjamin Evett) looks on as Benjamin Franklin (Bobbie Steinbach) debates with John Dickinson (Aimee Doherty) in front of other Congress members in the musical '1776.'
Courtesy of Andy Brilliant

Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Music composed by Sherman Edwards
Mosesian Center for the Arts
Playing Nov. 30 – Dec. 23

Our “obnoxious and disliked” protagonist John Adams (Benjamin Evett) breaks onto stage into a chorus of “Sit Down, John!” as he fails to rally Congress into approving an independent America. “[...] And three [useless men] become a Congress, and by God have I had it with this Congress!” Adams shouts. With the help of Benjamin Franklin, played by the wonderfully witty Bobbie Steinbach, he recruits the flamboyant and likeable Richard Henry Lee — played by Pier Lamia Porter with giddy enthusiasm — to propose independence to Congress. The plot finally kicks in, and so begins the rocky road to convincing Thomas Jefferson (played by the eloquent KP Powell) to write a Declaration of Independence and dragging the rest of Congress along to sign it.

The script makes light of the heroic worship of our Founding Fathers — it’s entertainment first, historical account second — but here, the raunchy jokes are taken up a notch. Franklin’s cane becomes a phallic joke, among his other interests, and much of Congress’s debates and meetings are peppered with senators playing with paper fortune tellers or competing in rock-paper-scissors. It makes the two and a half hour long musical less tedious amidst political debates that break into song. But don’t let that fool you. Behind the stage looms the British flag; the Congress members sit in chairs all around; John Hancock (Cheryl Singleton) acts as president on the right side of stage; and we can peek into what appears to be children playing a mockup of politicians behind a dangerous war they don’t see (and we don’t see) first hand.

A political musical has never been so relevant. If all the dissatisfaction with Congress were condensed into a satirical look at the people who made our country, 1776 is that musical.

What will strike you first is the large cast of Congress: Americans in 18th century played by Americans in the 21st century. The recent trend to increase diverse representation upends the entire original white cast (all male except for two women who exist in relation to their husbands, Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams) and replaces them with a diverse cast that refer to each other as “Mr.” or themselves as “men.” It gets confusing for those having never seen the musical, but you get used to it, and even more so, it only draws greater attention to just how far we’ve come. Aimee Doherty’s John Dickinson is confident, brilliant, and can threaten John Adams with a chair. Each character is so well cast that a female John Dickinson (or a female Samuel Chase by Jane Reagan, or an Asian Caesar Rodney by Gary Thomas Ng, etc.) never struck me as unsuitable.

It would be dishonest to say that this works well all the time; it’s a double-edged sword.  The real kicker is Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, played by Dan Prior (not cross dressing). Adams and Franklin refer to her as a “bounty” and Jefferson calls her his wife. But for an audience watching the two men kissing on stage, with one being referred to as the other’s wife, one who is objectified as effeminate by other men, it’s hard to avoid thinking about gay erasure in media. For us who have seen the musical with its original cast, we know it’s moving from a hetero, white script to a more queer adaptation of history. But for first-time watchers, it’s hard to see that the musical is going in the opposite direction. The rest of the script feels this way. Not everyone in Congress is white, yet some play characters who talk of slaves as property. It’s a modern cast playing dress up for a period piece when the odds were against them.

One wonders whether changing the original script would have solved some of this, even if it warps history. The wealthy men of Congress, played half by women, sing “We cool, cool considerate men” as a repeated refrain. In a poignant moment, Franklin and Adams have to give up the Declaration of Independence’s slavery clause (with the clause, the declaration would be freeing slaves) or else, the southern states would walk out and the declaration would never pass. This draws in the hypocrisy: to gain half the country, they have to enslave part of it. Adams rightly points out it is hypocritical, that posterity won’t forgive them. We have a black Thomas Jefferson, who must agree to slash out the slavery clause. And lastly, a female Franklin says with somber wisdom, “What will posterity think we were, demigods? We're men,” noting that they’re mortal, but the word is still jarring. These moments are there and noticeable, pointing out clearly that should Congress really have been so diverse in 1776, this decision would have been a no-brainer: of course they are all being hypocrites, damn it, and the North and the South would seek compromise. But they aren’t there yet.

The performance is stellar, and the cast’s zeal and comedic timing are perfect. All actors and actresses are all well casted and costumed with care to the character. The wry delight of Steinbach’s witty delivery as Franklin is particularly memorable. Evett’s Adams is a force of nature, more caustic than William Daniels’s interpretation in the original cast, but Evett still plays a sympathetic Adams in his interactions with Carolyn Saxon’s Abigail Adams, whose lilting voice gives a lovingness to the whole political ordeal. The duo croon to each other “Till then...till then…,” unable to meet for they are in different locations (John is stuck in Philadelphia, Abigail is in Boston), but through stage magic, they can reach for each other.

And the most telling scene belongs to Shannon Lee Jones, who bellows the infamous “Molasses to Rum” with such scathing derision at the North’s hypocrisy; it’s no surprise that her Edward Rutledge was greeted with applause. “Molasses, to rum and slaves….oh, what a beautiful war!” Jones sings, walking among the Congress members like a prowling tigress. As Rutledge ends with, “Who stinketh the most?” we too wonder who indeed: is it the North for reaping the monetary benefits of slavery? The South for forcing the slavery clause? The British for taxing the Americans? I’m not convinced by the end. Just as the Declaration of Independence is signed, George Washington’s report comes in reporting how outnumbered the Americans are, how men are dying and there is little hope. The Liberty Bell chimes as Congress wonders whether they had signed a document of death or life — is the American Eagle inside the egg laid by Britain going to hatch, let alone grow up? — and the stage goes dark to us, the American audience of today.