REVIEW: NATIONAL TOUR OF “1776,” — Center Theatre Group @ Ahmanson Theatre
Updated: Apr 14
APRIL 12, 2023 — LOS ANGELES
It’s summer 1776, and the colonies are in crisis. The Second Continental Congress must argue the question of independence from Great Britain. As temperatures rise—both inside and outside the chambers— the founding fathers race to do what has never been done before: cut ties with the British Empire and give rise to the birth of a free nation.
Considered the forerunner of Hamilton, 1776 is a work of historical fiction. No written manuscripts of what actually happened during the meeting of the Second Continental Congress exist. In order to strike a balance of historical accuracy and engaging drama, creator Sherman Edwards and librettist Peter Stone crafted a story that drew from research and source material such as personal memoirs and letters.
The original production of 1776 debuted on Broadway in March 1969 amidst the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the recent success of the antiwar musical Hair. A surprise hit, it garnered three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. In 1970, it became the first Broadway show to play at the White House; and in 1972, it debuted as a film adaptation. New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company produced the first revival in 1997 and co-produced the current revival with American Repertory Theatre that was set to begin in 2020 but delayed due to COVID until the end of 2022. That revival is currently on a 16-city national tour and playing through May 7th at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA, directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus.
A departure from previous versions, the creators have reframed it to acknowledge those people excluded at the creation of the founding document (people of color, women, Native Americans) and to reflect America as it is today. To that end, the ethnically diverse cast consists entirely of female-identifying, trans, nonbinary and gender non-conforming performers who, as the musical commences, literally step into the shoes of the Founding Fathers. In addition to casting, this production reimagines musical arrangements, choreography, and staging to bring new perspectives to an old story with an attempt to marry a contemporary theatrical aesthetic with the traditionalist show.
Arriving on stage dressed in contemporary apparel (white shirts, black leggings, Doc Martens, etc.), the performers replace their boots with buckle shoes and slip into 17th-century-style tailcoats to transform themselves into delegates of the fractious Second Continental Congress.
Their mood (which mirrors the nation's current, contentious temper) is reflected in set designer Scott Pask's modernist representation of the American flag: angular and fractured as if it's being viewed through various prisms. It's upon that canvas that David Bengali projections depict, at lightning speed, the triumphs and tragedies the nation has experienced in its imperfect, ongoing attempts to ensure for its citizens their equal and unalienable rights.
The vocally formidable cast is led by the dynamic, impassioned Gisela Adisa as John Adams, the pro-independence champion who, together with Benjamin Franklin (Liz Mikel, whose wry, understated performance feels definitive) and Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson), try to convince fellow delegates at the Second Continental Congress to break with England and declare themselves free.
That new nationality requires a new nation, Franklin says, a flawed one rooted in America's original sin. That sin is depicted in the harrowing "Molasses to Rum," an indictment of Northern complicity in the slave trade. Sung by South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (here played by Kassandra Haddock), the number unfolds against the backdrop of an auction of enslaved people.
But the most emotionally compelling moment comes courtesy of Brooke Simpson's courier who sings "Momma, Look Sharp," a dying soldier's plea to his mother. The showstopping number serves as a stark reminder of the price some pay for the decisions of politicians sworn to protect citizens' lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Led by the charismatic Gisela Adisa as John Adams, the ensemble cast is a thrilling mix of Broadway veterans (including Joanna Glushak, resplendent in villain mode as John Dickinson) and newcomers. Other favorite roles included Shawna Hamic, bombastic as Richard Henry Lee; Anissa Marie Griego, sparkly and adorable as Roger Sherman; and Julie Cardia’s perfectly cantankerous, rum-drinking representative from Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins. But the shared energy and chemistry transcended any individual performance, as all were simply amazing, and everyone onstage seemed to be having the time of their life.
CENTER THEATRE GROUP PRESENTS, THE NATIONAL TOUR OF “1776;” BOOK BY Peter Stone; BASED ON A CONCEPT BY Sherman Edwards; DIRECTED BY Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus; MUSIC AND LYRICS BY Sherman Edwards; CHOREOGRAPHY BY Jeffrey L. Page; SCENIC DESIGN BY Scott Pask; COSTUME DESIGN BY Emilio Sosa; LIGHTING DESIGN BY Jennifer Schriever; SOUND DESIGN BY Jonathan Deans; PROJECTION DESIGN BY David Bengali; MUSIC SUPERVISOR/MUSIC DIRECTOR Ryan Cantwell; ORIGINAL MUSIC SUPERVISOR David Chase; ORCHESTRATIONS BY John Clancy; VOCAL DESIGN AnnMarie Milazzo; CASTING BY Stewart/Whitley; ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR Brisa Arelis Muñoz; ASSOCIATE CHOREOGRAPHER Courtney Ross; PRODUCTION STAGE MANAGER Genevieve Kersh; ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGERS Devin Day & Sage Lumsden; COMPANY MANAGER Katie Cortez; ASSISTANT COMPANY MANAGER Ryan Buchholz.
WITH: Shelby Acosta, Gisela Adisa, Nancy Anderson, Tiffani Barbour, Dawn Cantwell, Julie Cardia, Amanda Dayhoff, Sara Gallo, Joanna Glushak, Anissa Marie Griego, Kassandra Haddock, Shawna Hamic, Lisa Karlin, Connor Lyon, Liz Mikel, Nykila Norman, Oneika Phillips, Lulu Picart, Kayla Saunders, Ariella Serur, Brooke Simpson, Sav Souza, Lillie Eliza Thomas, Tieisha Thomas, Jill Vallery, Gwynne Wood, Candice Marie Woods.
The performance length is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Performances are APRIL 11 – MAY 7, 2023 at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A., CA 90012. Ticket Prices: $40 – $155; Tickets are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling (213) 972- 4400.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus