The musical that first made the founding fathers into musical stars, pays its respects to Hamilton by making them cool.
The touring production of 1776 comes to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts with a cast of exclusively women, trangender and nonbinary actors playing the members of the burgeoning United States’ Second Continental Congress. The musical follows the delegates in the immediate run up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
In 1776, leading man-turned-lady, John Adams (Gisela Adisa), is attempting to push the continental congress toward independence, hampered at every step by millais and the members of the delegation who fear the repercussions of such a pronouncement. Throughout the show, we follow Adams, his friend Ben Franklin (Liz Mikel) and a reluctant Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson) as they push the congress and the country toward independence.
This production cleverly begins by introducing the actors in street clothes, everyday people (a majority of whom are female-presenting and non-white) before they don Revolutionary-era frock coats and throw off their sneakers in favor of high-heeled buckled shoes. Many of the actors from the Broadway run have followed the show on tour, leading to an impressive lineup of powerhouse performances.
The highly-choreographed dance numbers immediately evoke the blockbuster musical Hamilton – just in case you missed the race-blind casting. While evocative and compelling, this production fails to hit a number of jokes and poignant moments already in the show. Two of the more touching songs in the original production, “He Plays the Violin” and “Is Anybody There,” lose much of their emotional punch in this version. Also, while the ending is poignant in a new way, the original ending tableau evoking Robert Edge Pine’s 1788 painting, Congress Voting the Declaration of Independence is lost.
That said, the second act number “Molasses to Rum,” is so stunningly reimagined that it raises up the rest of the show by proxy. The song, sung by South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (Kassandra Haddock), graphically explains the triangle trade and the role of slaves in early America. The number is so powerful, in fact, that you almost wonder if the creators of this production came up with the idea for this song first and just built the rest to house this one number. Through choreography, a group of the African-American actors transform themselves from senators, to slaves, to slave buyers and back to senators.
Intense and often conflicting emotions can be seen from all characters. From staunch abolitionists like Adams and Franklin, to Jeffersons more complex journey and Rutledge's unapologetic endorsement of slavery to support his way of life, this version of the song brings teeth to the show’s climax. Honestly, the performances, choreography and staging of this scene is worth the cost of admission all by itself.
Like the original show, this production invited the audience to view the founding fathers as human beings, flawed and making difficult choices. The ending of this production explicitly invites the audience to literally don the coats of the founding fathers, and metaphorically step into their shoes.
Ultimately, this production does a good job carving out new moments that feel deeply poignant to the modern audience, but in the process, unfortunately forgot to hit some of the important beats already in the show. Go for the interesting rework of a Broadway classic and to enjoy the sharp choreography, but if you’re already a fan of the show, don’t expect it to nail all of your favorite moments.
Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone. Based on a concept by Sherman Edwards and directed by Diane Paulus and Jeffery L. Page. Presented by Broadway San Jose.
Through: May 21, 2023
Where: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 W. San Carlos St.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: broadwaysanjose.com, 408-792-4111
Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus.