“Have we ever been so divided as a nation?” People now ask this question on a daily basis, amidst news of controversial Supreme Court decisions about abortion, political polls that still show massive support for Donald Trump, and often-violent disagreements among friends and family about everything from gay marriage to reparations to African Americans. But, as Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ classic musical “1776,” now onstage in a welcome revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, so potently reminds us, divisiveness has always built into this country’s fabric.
The show, first seen on Broadway in 1969, recounts the long struggls to get the Declaration of Independence both approved and written. We watch, both horrified and occasionally bemused, as our founding fathers fight bitterly about whether we should remain loyal to King George III and whether slavery should be formally abolished.
It's topicality aside, what makes Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page’s often wonderful -- and occasionally problematic -- production so timely its unusual concept and execution. All the performers onstage are female-presenting and represent a variety of races, ethnicities and genders, putting the story directly into the hands of people who were not even considered “people” by our founding fathers. Brava!
As its three “leads,” Crystal Lucas-Perry sharply emphasizes John Adams’ self-conviction of always being right (although she does show some much-needed vulnerability with Adams’ wife Abigail, gorgeously portrayed by Allyson Kaye Daniel). Patrena Murray adeptly captures Ben Franklin’s quick wit, albeit with a vocal delivery eerily reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg. Lastly, a visibly pregnant Elizabeth Davis seems to have chosen Thomas Jefferson’s reputation for reticence as the character’s defining trait, for better and worse.
Still, it’s much of the supporting cast that truly shines. The brightest spotlight is earned by the magnificent Carolee Carmello, delivering a Tony-worthy performance as John Dickinson, the ultimate British loyalist and Adams’ staunchest foe. Carmello displays a fierce intelligence and the just-right air of smugness and snobbery (just listen to her say “property”). Musically, she shows off her blistering pipes in the chilling “Cool Cool Considerate Men,” earning a well-deserved and rousing ovation.
Eryn LeCroy is a revelation during her brief turn as Martha Jefferson, unleashing her truly thrilling soprano on “He Plays the Violin.” Additionally, she serves up some excellent dramatic moments as Georgia delegate Dr. Lyman Hall, who cannot decide between voting her conscience or voting with what she believes are the will of the people she represents.
Unfortunately, two of the other cast members’ outstanding work is severely undercut by misguided staging choices. There’s no question that the splendid Sara Porkalop could deliver the smoldering “Molasses to Rum” – hardly a subtle song -- on a bare stage. So, I don’t understand why Paulus and Page have added a background dance explicitly depicting a slave auction, as if the audience had a 6th-grade education and needed visuals to explain the lyrics.
Meanwhile, Salome B. Smith, as the unnamed Courier who regularly delivers missives from George Washington, clearly has both first-rate vocal and dramatic chops, but that is no reason to transform the simple but heartbreaking “Momma, Look Sharp” into an overwrought quasi-gospel number and add a “chorus” of mourning mothers in the background.
One can quibble about many other things in this production – can anyone adequately explain the meaning of set designer Scott Pask’s final image – but there’s no question that “1776” speaks loudly and clearly to audiences in 2022.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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