An Inalienable Right for Some: “1776”

Photo by Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Photography

Presented by New Rep Theatre
Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone
Co-directed by Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards
Music direction by Todd C. Gordon
Choreography by Kelli Edwards

Nov. 30 – Dec. 30, 2018
Mainstage Theater
Mosesian Center for the Arts
Watertown, MA
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Critique by Kitty Drexel

Trigger warnings: systemic racism, sexism, bracingly tight pleather pants

(Watertown, MA) 1776 is a quirky, innuendo-laced musical about Boston’s part in the US’s bid for independence. New Rep gives us a fun production that is more timely than it is educational. This musical might be based on historical facts but this production brings new momentum to current events.

It is the summer of 1776 and hot as Hell in Philadelphia. The US Colonies’ lame-duck Congress is at an impasse. Unless John Adams (Benjamin Evett) convinces all of the Congress otherwise, the Colonies will remain sovereign territories of England. Benjamin Franklin (Bobbie Steinbach) and Thomas Jefferson (KP Powell) come to Adams’ aid against John Dickinson (Aimee Doherty) and his loyal conservatives.

1776 abbreviates American history into a three-hour musical.  The first half is expository with chair-ography lightly sprinkled over character presentation. The second half delves deeply into the US’s problematic declaration of freedom for some (but not for most). Its musical numbers are more serious. 1776 was originally cast as our nation’s forefathers intended – with a majority white, cis, male cast. New Rep’s casting decisions are more current; this racially diverse cast represents the City of Boston’s many ethnicities with a male and female presenting actors.

New Rep’s production is great. For a theatre company that produces hit or miss musicals, this production is exceptionally entertaining. The cast is very good; they entice us to like and appreciate their characters while taking risks with their portrayals. Direction and staging by Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards deliver the story to the audience like a well-written novel. Audience members have every reason to enjoy 1776. The only exception being for personal taste. 

Speaking of risk taking, costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt pushes the envelope of  neo-Colonialist fashion into steampunk and neo-Victorian territory. It embraces the production’s subversion of cis heteronormativity while allowing the cast to perform in relative comfort. The traditional garb of the colonials would not allow a cast to dance merrily across the stage. Padula-Shufelt’s does and more.  

The orchestra is a limb of the production that supports full weight. Gordon is a fine conductor. Stanley Silverman delivers a rich performance as the featured soloist in “He Plays the Violin.” 1776 is famous for its long break between musical number “The Lees of Old Virginia” and “But Mr. Adams.” The orchestra gets a lucky offstage rest to recharge. We miss them while they’re gone.

Edwards and Stone knew what they were about when they wrote this musical. They don’t sally about history’s inconvenient truths: our national bird was almost the turkey; the Declaration of Independence didn’t extend to women or people of color. It didn’t even extend of the natives residing on US soil. Steven Martin’s performance of “Mama Look Sharp” examines this reality. He employs stillness to rattle our calm. His performance is heavy with the weight of America’s past and current racist practices.

It was inconvenient to the slavery business to extend freedom to all men living on the North American continent. As explained in “Molasses to Rum” (performed with great severity by Shannon Lee Jones) Boston was a port for slaving ships. Massachusetts was complicit in the slave trade until the  Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865. It is important that New England remember that just because we think we’re a bastion of liberal thought and action, in truth, we are not.

America may have wrestled itself from England’s taxing clutches but it isn’t the free territory it aimed to be. 1776 should remind us how far we have not yet come. Our politicians throw around words like “slavery” when the prison system legally enslaves its inmates. The president claims he’s persecuted while white supremacy is the law of the land. Women cannot receive objective  reproductive healthcare while a man can get a vasectomy, reverse it and then get the surgery again if he wants. We are not free. None of us will be until we all are.

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