The Pulitzer Prize winning musical, “1776” holds a special place in my heart. It was on a tour of the show with many of the original cast members that I got my Equity Card as assistant stage manager. So, needless to say, I came to appreciate the specialness of the musical. After all, it is no easy feat to create tension about whether they will or will not sign the proposed Declaration of Independence when everyone knows the outcome and the very date of the signing. Not only does it succeed at building that suspense, but as the bells chime and the role is called for each of the men to sign the declaration, you suddenly realize that they are recreating John Trumbull’s painting, “Declaration of Independence,” which is completed upon the last signing. It’s a spine tingle inducing moment.
So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the new all-female, racially diverse production of “1776.” And now that I endured the experience I can only ask “Why?” I’m sure that there was some creative spark that made sense in the minds of Jeffrey Page and Diane Paulus, the show’s co-directors. But as an audience, I can tell you the reason was anything but clear. Since the book was not rewritten, there are still speeches from the southern representatives supporting slavery. The female characters in the show, Abigail Adams (Tieisha Thomas) and Martha Jefferson (Connor Lyon) still are little more than objects of sexual desire. So what is to be gained by having the men played by women? Nothing except what appears to be a casting gimmick.
The cast itself, more often than not, doesn’t help to pull it off. As John Adams, Gisela Adisa is far too pleasant and soft-spoken to ever fit the often used description of “obnoxious and disliked.” Liz Mikel as Benjamin Franklin is given much of the humor in the script. Although she lands some of her jokes, too many laugh-lines barely get a small smile from the audience. The strongest performance came from Joanna Glushak as John Dickinson, the Pennsylvanian representative who walks out of the Congress rather than vote to break away from England.
Not even the ending tableau that used to give me chills every night remains. Instead, they gather and turn upstage where a curtain reveals what looks like a large warehouse of barrels or containers of some kind. I just didn’t get it, nor did the other three people who joined me for the show.
The rather bare-looking set by Scott Pask which frequently relied on a manually pulled curtain for scenes downstage, was bland to the point of boring as was Jen Schriever’s lighting which never brought the heat from that summer of 1776 indoors. Even the score was frequently reorchestrated to feel more ‘modern’ but only succeeded in sounding jumbled.
1776 is playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through May 7, 2023. For tickets or more information, go to their website Centertheatregroup.org, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!