Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

1776
New Repertory Theatre
Review by Josh Garstka


Benjamin Evett, KP Powell, and Bobbie Steinbach
Photo by Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Photography
In 1969, as the Vietnam War raged, and months before the moon landing, Stonewall and Woodstock, the musical 1776 opened in New York. Peter Stone (book) and Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) created an unlikely hit about the Founding Fathers who badgered, bullied, sang and danced their way into starting a new nation. Decades later, of course, an even bigger hit Founding Fathers musical followed: Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, breaking down doors with actors of color telling the story of the white men who built America. New Repertory Theatre's current production of 1776, co-directed by Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards, takes a page from Hamilton's playbook by presenting this oft-staged musical with a race- and gender-blind cast. It's a smart approach that reminds us of 1776's often overlooked revolutionary spirit.

The musical opens with John Adams, the Massachusetts delegate who is "obnoxious and disliked," haranguing the Second Continental Congress for not debating his resolution for the American colonies to break free from England. We know where the vote on independence will lead, but the delight of 1776 is how it takes us there, through weeks of negotiations in a poorly ventilated congressional chamber during a stifling Philadelphia summer. Peter Stone's banter-heavy book lifts the broader strokes from the historical record while giddily improvising the minutiae of the Congress's steps toward independence.

New Rep's diverse cast helps us see this sometimes stodgy show through fresh eyes. There's an overabundance of dirty-old-man humor that's thankfully balanced by adding female actors to the company. Bobbie Steinbach, for one, brings a caustic wit to her portrayal of the sage Benjamin Franklin, while underplaying his more lecherous tendencies. There are only two women depicted in the show, and one—Martha Jefferson—exists mostly to extol her husband's sexual prowess. But with actor Dan Prior taking on Martha, her innuendo-laden ode to Tom's charms ("He Plays the Violin," wink, wink) is played more sweetly than bawdily. It helps that Prior sings winningly, with a fine assist from violinist Stanley Silverman in the orchestra.

Those familiar with 1776 may have forgotten some of its more controversial moments. Aimee Doherty's elegantly composed John Dickinson leads a chorus of "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" that insists on marching to the right, "with our land, cash in hand, self-command." Dickinson here is a familiar political type, stoking fears of civil disorder and radicalism (especially from those Massachusetts liberals). For this innocuous-seeming show to take shots at wealthy conservatives overtaking our politics ruffled Richard Nixon's feathers during his presidency. Pendleton and Edwards make sure the number lingers, by closing the first act on these cool men's unsettling tableau.

Then there's the climactic showdown over a clause denouncing slavery in the Declaration of Independence. Shannon Lee Jones' menacingly genteel Edward Rutledge reminds her fellow congressmen in the sinister "Molasses to Rum" of their hypocrisy: Northern states that oppose slavery still reap plenty of profit, and Thomas Jefferson himself, the Declaration's author, is a slave owner. The night's most chilling moment comes when KP Powell, the (excellent) black actor playing Jefferson, takes it upon himself to strike the slavery clause from the Declaration. "If we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us," John Adams attests. Franklin's defense ("We're men—no more, no less") feels human but also hollow in this production, with a diverse ensemble of men and women who, merely by telling this story, invite us to question the moral authority of men who begot a country on the backs of the oppressed.

A painting of traditionally clad eighteenth-century men hangs behind the actors, a sly reminder in Cristina Todesco's set design of who originally held the power in America. The stage is a bare brick floor with scaffolding and folding chairs, an empty canvas waiting to be written on. Rachel Padula-Shufelt's sharp costumes mix dapper Revolution-era waistcoats with contemporary pants and footwear, in line with the authors' sprinkling of anachronisms throughout the historical proceedings. The night I attended, it took several scenes for the cast to find its rhythm, but the mostly young ensemble settled into a groove during the first marathon session of Congress. With keys altered to fit different voices, some of the cast don't seem to fit Edwards' jaunty songs as well as others. Steven Martin provides the show's richest singing in the somber "Momma, Look Sharp," as a courier (from Watertown, no less) memorializing two friends who died in battle.

Benjamin Evett, as the firebrand John Adams, carries the weight of the show on his shoulders. His Adams is an intemperate but determined leader, cajoling the Congressmen to be bold and stand up against the British king's tyranny. Evett's brusque bellow of a singing voice suits Adams' dogged temperament. It's in his performance that we feel the physical toll Congress has taken on a man who pushes himself to the breaking point. He is the hot-blooded center of New Rep's 1776, a new read on a dusty old crowd-pleaser that casts a wary eye on the men who made history and the way we've told it.

New Repertory Theatre's 1776, through December 30, 2018, at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown MA. Tickets can be purchased at newrep.org or by phone at 617-923-8487.

Cast (listed alphabetically): Rachel Belleman, Nick Chieffo, Aimee Doherty, Benjamin Evett, Alex Hatcher, Riley Fox Hillyer, Ricardo Holguin, Shannon Lee Jones, Liliane Klein, Steven Martin, Todd McNeel, Jr., Luis Negron, Gary Thomas Ng, Pier Lamia Porter, KP Powell, Dan Prior, Jane Reagan, Simon Rogers, Carolyn Saxon, Cheryl. D Singleton, Felton Sparks, Bobbie Steinbach, Alexandra Teman.

Creative Team: Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards, co-directors; Todd C Gordon, Music Director; Cristina Todesco, Scenic Designer; Rachel Padula-Shufelt, Costume Designer; Alberto Segarra, Lighting Designer; Kevin Schlagle, Stage Manager; Brian M. Robillard, Assistant Stage Manager.


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