As crazy as the political landscape in America is right now, re-introducing the 1969 musical 1776 to the masses was one heck of a good idea. This version of the show, though, comes with a Twist: an all female and gender non-conforming cast.
Co-directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, the show is based on the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s Philadelphia in June 1776, and the Continental Congress is meeting to decide whether or not to declare independence from Great Britain. John Adams (Gisela Adisa) wants independence, but faces hurdles because several members are fierce opponents. With the help of Benjamin Franklin (Liz Mikel) and Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson), he is finally able to convince the delegates to vote ‘yes’ on July 4th, 1776.
The show quickly introduces you to so many characters at once, that I had a hard time figuring out who was who. I almost wished the production had projected the names of the characters when they first spoke. The book also wastes the momentum of the fun opening number, “Sit Down, John,” where 20 characters are on stage giving exposition about what was happening in the country and what the delegates were looking to do, in regards to England. It really picks up in the second act though where the actors are actually allowed to act and not be a Wikipedia page of dialogue.
And thank heavens for those actors. If it wasn’t for the talent assembled, the show would have been a slog. Adisa as John Adams anchors the show and even with the lulls from the book, she manages to move it along, giving it a kick in the pants at times when it’s much needed. Mikel as Benjamin Franklin injected some welcome comic relief and Brooke Simpson absolutely slays it in Act 2 with her song, “Momma, Look Sharp.”
One of the main frustrations of the show was its set design, which could only be described as minimalist. Scott Pask’s set features wooden desks and chairs which are absolutely needed, yes. But to delineate new locations, the production has two rows of what can only be described as very long shower curtains. When a scene has them move to a new location, an actor moves the shower curtain to the left or to the right. There are some minor projections on the curtains but it’s mostly just drab brown that makes the set even more muted. And when actors need to enter a scene, they come through in between the curtains. It’s just a very odd and distracting way to make an entrance, especially when said entrance is during an emotional scene. You would think coming from Broadway, the sets would be amped up a couple of notches.
While the show has nothing on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, it does make a good companion piece. And again to reiterate, thank goodness for the actors giving it their all and making this a must see for history buffs.
1776 is currently playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre. For more info and tickets: Broadway San Diego