Thursday, May 18, 2023

theatrical review: 1776 revived

The national touring company of the recent Broadway revival of 1776 is in town, so I went to see it. This was the production noted for a cast entirely of women (and a few nonbinaries), which wasn't new to me, as I'd seen a local all-female production of 1776 nearly a decade ago.

That a good proportion of the cast - including, in this company, both Adams and Franklin - were Black was, however, not precedented in my experience, and when a good number of those Black cast members appear as slaves in the auction-block sequence of the song "Molasses to Rum," you sit up and take notice.

Aside from a few cuts - Lewis Morris is folded into Robert Livingston, and Richard Henry Lee doesn't prance around - the text is unaltered. That the characters, if not the actors, are white men is, if anything, emphasized: there's lots of sniggering from the company whenever anyone makes a sexist remark. The minimalness of cuts means that the show's rather sophisticated treatment of the slavery issue comes across in full. When, having deleted the Declaration's anti-slavery clause as the price of winning support from the Southern delegates, Adams and Franklin say "Posterity will never forgive us" and "That's probably true," they look directly out at the audience as if they, no less than the actors who play them, know that we're there.

What has been changed, and drastically so, is the arrangements of the songs, not always to their benefit. Somebody should have told them that it's essential to the power of "Momma Look Sharp" that it is quiet throughout. Adding a section of yelling does not enhance it. Nor does turning John and Abigail's tender duet into a march. However, that Nancy Anderson as Jefferson actually can and does play the violin is a definite plus.

A few bits of stage business came across as odd. The acting, however, was very good, and the re-envisaging of some of the lines was well thought through. Gisela Adisa is a little underpowered for the ferocious Adams, and having a higher voice than Tieisha Thomas as her Abigail takes some getting used to, but Adisa's dedication succeeds at carrying the show. Liz Mikel as Franklin is ideally lusty and full-bodied. A few of the others are, if anything, too overpowered. But Joanna Glushak and Kassandra Haddock as the antagonists, Dickinson and Rutledge, are supremely cool and suave, the best performances in the show.

So, overall, it worked well enough to be worth attending. But next time I see this show, I want some of the 21st-century consciousness to be married to an otherwise more traditional production.

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