A perfect musical for Women’s History Month–or any month for fans of Hamilton and the pitched battle for the soul of America’s imperfect new union–the national tour of 1776 provides a fresh perspective on the birth of these sometimes tenuously United States via a cast “that reflects multiple representations of race, gender, and ethnicity, and who identify as female, trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming,” as a program note from the directors details.
The choice to assemble such a cast to portray the Second Continental Congress as it debates ratification of the Declaration of Independence in the weeks leading up to July 4 of the titular year removes any Hall of Presidents whiff from the proceedings. More important, it implicitly puts on trial the treatment of women as an afterthought by these purportedly high-minded white men in the same way the book (Peter Stone), music and lyrics (Sherman Edwards) explicitly interrogate the treatment of enslaved Black citizens. (The addition of an Abigail Adams line to “remember the ladies…all men would be tyrants if they could” drives the point home.)
This overdue evolution in depicting the Revolution comes courtesy of a new production of the 1969 Tony Award-winning Best Musical by American Repertory Theater at Harvard University/Roundabout Theatre Company and directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, which opened March 1 in Broadway in Chicago’s CIBC Theatre, known to many as Hamilton’s home away from home.
When it comes to assessing Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson) fares much better here than he does in Hamilton (aha-ha-ha ha), while John Adams (Gisela Adisa) takes about the same amount of ribbing in both. Though this production underscores Adams’ opposition to slavery–a stance he must bleakly compromise to win over the same malcontents who still prize racism over reason and seek a national divorce in 2023. That makes this revival especially timely even as it evokes a melancholic sense our sometimes soaring nation may forever be kept from truly free flight by sectarian strife.
Adisa, a talented actor and singer, ably leads this large ensemble cast with enough charisma to create a disconnect during the many moments in which her character is ridiculed for his utter insufferability. Liz Mikel enlivens the proceedings as the randy, raunchy Ben Franklin, while Anderson adoitly essays a Jefferson as gifted with a violin as he is with rhetorical persuasion. Shawna Hamic provides antic energy and several laughs as the august Richard Henry Lee, especially while belting out boastful promises to deliver the South for independence in “The Lees of Old Virginia.”
Other standout musical performances include the mournful, impassioned “Momma, Look Sharp” led by Brooke Simpson (Courier), stirring, sensual first-act closer “He Plays the Violin” by Connor Lyon (Martha Jefferson), and a searing indictment of the Triangle Trade and the hypocrisy that supported it, “Molasses to Rum,” sung with villainous verve by Kassandra Haddock (Edward Rutledge).
The disappointingly modest set is nowhere near Hamilton caliber, but the costuming is wonderfully done, as the actors discard boots at the start of the show and step into period-appropriate buckled shoes. Once they pull their white socks into knee-high leggings and don frock coats, the transformation is complete while still displaying punk swagger.
The only musket misfire comes during “The Egg,” when the video timeline of historic activist moments feels a little too on the nose. But even there, the great bleeding heart of 1776 remains in the right place, providing a forceful reminder that the nation’s progressives have a greater claim to patriotism than the belligerent reactionaries who wrap themselves in the American flag.
1776 runs through March 12 at CIBC Theatre.
Photo by Joan Marcus