Could be Better, Could be Worse: American Repertory Theater’s “1776”

Presented by American Repertory Theater
Produced in association with Roundabout Theatre Company
Book by Peter Stone
Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Based on a Concept by Sherman Edwards
Directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus
Music Direction by Ryan Cantwell
Choreography by Jeffrey L. Page
Music Supervision by David Chase
Orchestrations by John Clancy
Vocal Design by AnnMarie Milazzo
Dialect Coaching (NYC) by Dawn-Elin Fraser
Dialect Coaching (Cambridge) by Erika Bailey
Fight Direction by Thomas Schall

May 17 – July 24, 2022
Loeb Drama Center
Cambridge, MA
Run Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

The mask goes over your nose.

Critique by Kitty Drexel

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Contemporary performances of Stone & Edwards’ 1776 are a response to Hamilton. The 1997 Broadway revival production at the Roundabout Theatre had an all white, all cis male cast (with Star Trek TNG’s Brent Spiner in the role of John Adams). American Repertory Theater tries something different with its 2022 production. It is largely successful thanks to the brave, button-pushing performances of its actors. 

1776 is the reproduction of the infamous congressional meetings that lead to the United States’ declaration of independence on July 4, 1776. John Adams (Crystal Lucas-Perry), Benjamin Franklin (Patrena Murray), and Thomas Jefferson (Elizabeth A. Davis) cajole the members of the Continental Congress into voting for American independence from British tyranny. 

This retelling of one of the greatest moments of our nation’s history comes not a moment too soon as abortion rights and gun control rock the foundations of modern living. 1776’s adult temper tantrums, locker room talk and day drinking might have been lost to history if it weren’t for the canny minds of Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards. 

This production of 1776 is inarguably good. But, I counter that it is good because of its performers. The choreography is appropriate but breaks no barriers. The direction is lazy. 

The staging is fine. All of the excitement and fanfare of the production was used up in its casting decisions. It doesn’t matter how much diversity is crammed into a show if the directors don’t do something with the actors.

Lucas-Perry, Davis, and non-villain Joanna Glushak as John Dickinson (PA) are the scaffolding that enable their cast members to perform at their best and most-daring. These three provide the frames and foundation for each scene. Their energy is constant and reliable. While this doesn’t make them the most exciting performers, it makes them invaluable to the production. Lucas-Perry carries the show on her back and in both fists. She has a solid belt, and so much stamina that she looks like she could do it all again immediately after curtain call. 

The constancy of Lucas-Perry, Davis, and Glushak allow other members of the cast to tear of the stage with rip-roaring performances that nearly brought the house down. “The Lees of Old Virginia” sung by Shawna Hamic jumpstarted the production when its energy lagged three numbers in. Hamic resuscitated the action.

Salome Smith as the Courier, left no dry eyes with her performance of “Momma, Look Sharp.” This song is a tear-jerker. Smith makes it a two hanky affair. 

“Molasses to Rum,” sung by Sara Porkalob (whose Dragon Mama at Club Oberon (RIP) was excellent), was the most striking number of the evening, hands down. They cavorted across the stage with Southern glee and a genteel accent. Porkalob delivered historical truth while smashing white, New England pride. Massachusetts wasn’t as anti-slavery as our scholars want us to believe. (Those slave ships had to park somewhere and Boston is a port-city.) It’s a strong performance that must be experienced.

Unlike Hamilton, 1776 makes a deliberate nod to the US’ Native American, Indian Native, and First Nations peoples. At the very beginning of the production, Brooke Simpson as as Roger Sherman (CT) dons a pendant representative of her tribe. You miss it if you blink. It’s a beautiful but all too brief moment. 

The A.R.T.’s production of 1776 is conveniently, lethargically queer. The cast contains cis, trans and non-binary actors – which is laudable! – but the production ignores every opportunity to take advantage of its diverse casting in its romantic moments. 

There are several fantasy sequences between Adams (Lucas-Perry) and Abigail Adams (Allyson Kaye Daniel). It’s understandable that the actors wouldn’t touch; their inability to is a metaphor for the great physical distance between the Addams. But the actors might show the misery a separated husband and wife feel. Or, express any of the joy a couple feels when they receive a long awaited letter. At best, Lucas-Perry and Daniel showed us the fond reminiscences between friends. 

Newlyweds Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy, coy and sweet) and Jefferson (Davis) are reunited after months apart. We’re told that they are so horny for each other that Jefferson can’t, nay won’t, write the “Declaration of Independence” until Martha has sung the orgasm song “He Plays the Violin.” Jefferson puts one territorial hand around Martha’s waist, and they disappear behind a curtain. If a production is so modern that it can have Black, Brown, trans, queer, etc. people playing the founding fathers, then it can be modern enough to have a husband lustily kiss his wife at least once, somewhere, on her person, in front of an audience.   

Queer representation doesn’t count unless the audience actually sees the queerness happen. Otherwise, it’s “Dumbledor was gay” all over again. Either the directors misunderstand what it means to be queer in 2022 (which I can’t believe) or they’re queer-baiting us. 

New Rep Theatre produced 1776 in 2018. It featured local actors and artisans, LGBTQ+ community, a person in glasses, and People of Color. The NETG critique of it is HERE.  We remembered it fondly as we awaited the opening number last Thursday.

With very few exceptions, actors must move to New York to perform on the A.R.T. stage. One of the most basic proponents of #BlackLivesMatter is supporting the BIPOC lives in your community. That includes hiring local community artists. There were no Boston actors performing in 1776 on June 2. 

Dramaturg Robert Duffley has done some fine work. The reference materials for 1776 are developed and thorough. There is so much content available that it’s nearly enough to disguise the fact that much of it is New York-based. For Massachusetts locals to truly believe that the A.R.T. is invested in doing the work WeSeeYouWAT demanded, the A.R.T. must serve its home community first and its Broadway intentions second. Black lives matter in Cambridge and in New York City. 

1776 does much to hold audience members accountable for the US’ violent, deliberate history of slavery. It could do more. White audience members may be shocked at what they learn. BIPOC won’t be shocked. Hopefully, subsequent productions will be inspired by this 1776 to continue the groundwork of the A.R.T. 

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