Direct from Broadway, the gender-twist take on the classic musical “1776” arrives at the Ahmanson to delight and, perhaps, confuse audiences with its antics.
Taking a page from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s racially swapped telling of Alexander Hamilton’s political years, “1776” attempts to hit the same mark and comes up left of center.
The musical’s plot by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone is based on the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. While there are over a dozen main cast members, the featured role centers on John Adams (Gisela Adisa), the heavily disliked Massachusetts congressman striving for everyone to vote for America’s independence from England.
Throughout the show, the various members of Congress bicker and pontificate on whether separating themselves from their mother country is the best route to go and what it will take to get everyone to agree to it. For example, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Kassandra Haddock) doesn’t want to give up the right to own slaves.
Meanwhile, most of Congress is either bantering about the upcoming vote or concerned about when they can bed their wives, girlfriends, etc. And while having the gender of the characters skew female/non-binary, the point this new incarnation by directors Jeffrey L. Page (choreographer Beyonce’s “Run the World”) and Diane Paulus (“Waitress”) goes for is understood in the first few minutes of the show. After that, there isn’t much new to use our quill pens to write home about.
One of the biggest missed opportunities here is that the characters of the Congressmen’s wives are still represented in the same way as the original production. If the goal was to gender-swap the traditionally male characters. why not do to same for the traditionally played female characters? Make the husbands the ones at home being used solely for sex and companionship, while the female/non-binary/transgender characters make all the decisions on how the country will be run.
There are a few line additions that further drive the point home, such as the most obvious, “All men would be tyrants if they could.” True words, but we already understand the point by the time the line is uttered.
“1776” as a musical in and of itself isn’t the greatest thing to hit the Great White Way. The songs are catchier than expected, but the endless political arguing isn’t tremendously compelling. It’s interesting, for sure, to watch history play out on stage – and the cast is uniformly fantastic – it just doesn’t feel as monumental as the re-creators seem to think it is. It really does feel like a post-Hamilton “let’s do that too” sort of idea, and the result is underwhelming.
The set design by Scott Pask is curiously subdued and feels like it would be more expected for a community theater production rather than a Broadway/touring show. The staging itself is fine but underwhelms. Basically, this show is all about the cast.
Liz Mikel as Benjamin Franklin is a comic treat with a powerful voice. Brooke Simpson, as the Courier, makes a showstopper out of “Mamma Look Sharp,” which hits on the topic of recurrent violence, and Adisa and Tieisha Thomas, as Abigail Adams, have a beautiful duet in “Till Then.”
There’s no denying the cast (made up of female, transgender, and non-binary actors) is the flawless part of the show. Every actor knocks their role out of the park. I just wish we could see them all in better shows that aren’t trying so hard to twist themselves to be topical.