'1776' Offers a Window Into the Imperfect History of American Independence
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, May 13, 2023
History comes to life onstage with the national touring presentation of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776, playing at Broadway San Diego’s Civic Theatre through May 14.
To be honest, I wasn’t initially quite sure what to expect. I knew there’d be a diverse cast of female, trans, and nonbinary actors and that the production featured an award-winning retelling of historical events. But in what ways would casting changes alone make the story, which premiered in 1969, relevant to today’s audiences?
Directed in this iteration by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, 1776 tells the story of the Second Continental Congress and the actions, motivations, and fears which guided America’s ultimate path to independence over a period of three months. While there are songs throughout which certainly advance the plot, there are also long stretches of dialogue without music.
Featuring a large, talented cast, the show stars Gisela Adisa as John Adams, Liz Mikel as Ben Franklin, Nancy Anderson as Thomas Jefferson, and Tieisha Thomas as Abigail Adams, performing alongside a delegation which includes Shelby Acosta, Tiffany Barbour, Dawn Cantwell, Julie Cardia, Amanda Dayhoff, Karole Foreman, Sara Gallo, Joanna Glushak, Anissa Marie Greigo, Kassandra Haddock, Shawna Hamic, Lisa Karlin, Connor Lyon, Nykila Norman, Oneika Phillips, Lulu Picart, Kayla Saunders, Ariella Serur, Brooke Simpson, Sav Souza, Lille Eliza Thomas, Gwynne Wood, and Candice Marie Woods.
Stand-out moments in the production include the humorous "The Egg" featuring the trio of leads, a haunting “Momma, Look Sharp,” sung plaintively by Brooke Simpson (who also delivered a pre-show land acknowledgement), and the physically and emotionally heavy “Molasses to Rum,” performed by Kassandra Haddock as the slippery Edward Rutledge. Tieisha Thomas’ resonant and soul-stirring voice also had me catching my breath alongside Gisela Adisa’s in the Adams duets “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours.”
Well staged and choreographed by the directors, 1776's use of tableau and framing to carry the storyline forward from date to date really works, with David Bengali’s scrawled text projections serving to keep the audience situated in an ever-moving yet ever-static progression of amendments. These appear on a tan half-height curtain that stretches the length of the stage, used as the primary backdrop in Philadelphia. This set, designed by Scott Pask, is dressed simply with wooden tables, chairs, and barrels and this simplicity, alongside the waistcoats, gowns, and buckle shoes, creates a comfortability with the time period (costume design is by Emilio Sosa). The lighting design by Jen Schriever includes tight follow spots and even washes, as well as stirring and dramatic light effects in some of the more impassioned scenes.
Disappointingly, the sound was quite unbalanced the night that I saw this production, which significantly affected the impact of the show. While the performances were outstanding, there were simply too many vocal lines and pieces of dialogue that were lost and, while some theatre-goers picked up assistive listening devices at intermission, many seats were unfilled during the second act as a result. I found this especially unfortunate given how powerful and dynamic the second act of the production is.
It was, in fact, the second act of 1776 that answered my wondering about relevancy: the truth is, the well-performed casting changes are not alone in bringing this production into the present day, but rather work in conjunction with additional creative choices intended to elevate and connect to current political events and ideological beliefs. And connect they do, all while shining a light on the oft-times sordid, imperfect history that is America’s birth.
“Posterity will never forgive us,” pleads John Adams. Franklin answers: “What would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We're men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don't secure that, what difference will the rest make?”
1776’s portrait of early America is provocative, that is to be sure.
The production runs at the Civic Theatre through May 14.