Featuring the longest scene without a musical number in the history of musical theater (over 30 minutes), 1776 is in many ways a theatrical oddity. Not only does it go for long stretches without musical numbers, a keen dramaturgical ear has difficulty in the narrative and song structure as it exists in the stage version. Act I goes from the large ensemble number “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” right into the devastatingly haunting “Mama Look Sharp” with barely a breath in between. Likewise, the end of Act II is also peculiar in that there is no real finale number (even though the song title is “Finale”) it feels more as if the piece just begins to fade like a flickering candle as the roll is called to sign the Declaration of Independence.
There is very little to comment on regarding the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players' direction of 1776 – it more looked as if the actors just decided where they wanted to go and when across the space. This, indeed, could be compounded by the fact that there was virtually no space for the actors to move in. Kresge Auditorium’s stage is rather high, and its ceiling very low, making the already full stage (I counted 19 people on it at a single time!) feel claustrophobic, as I’m sure the chamber of the Second Continental Congress felt in a sweltering Philadelphia in July. Also, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the actors - in full period costumes and wigs! - sweating under the lights.
As for the technical elements, there was likewise not much to speak of, and what there was to speak of, was not necessarily good. On the already cramped stage, two platforms were built in order to stagger the seating space in the congressional hall. While this made for the sometimes nice use of levels, it made the already low ceiling feel as if it was going to eat the actors. The seeming penchant for using microphones on singers in small spaces still feels unnecessary, and the feedback that happens is distracting.
The one technical aspect that stood out was the lighting design; and that was not for the better. There was an empty space mid-stage that seemed to be missing a light or two, and atrocious sweeps of color – most notably a garish red during “Molasses to Rum” in Act II – served to take me out of the play rather than manipulate me further into the world of it. Again, since 1776 in itself is campy to a contemporary audience (oh the wigs! Oh the jokes!), this exaggerated design could have been fun, if it felt like it had been a choice throughout, rather than the work of a seemingly inexperienced designer.*
Produced as it is written, 1776 would require roughly 15 white men and 2 white women to perform the principal roles. A smart move on the part of the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players was to have gender-blind casting, allowing for greater diversity in the cast. However, given some of the subject matter (i.e., dealing with the issue of slavery in the Declaration of Independence), there was a missed opportunity in having a more ethnically diverse cast. Though, this was most likely due to audition pool.
Anna-Constantia Richardson makes for a wonderful John Adams, sitting just on the fence of being as annoying and abrasive as the other characters make him out to be. While Richardson’s singing was not the highlight of her performance (it was more talk-singing due to the range), her unfailing energy and bullheadedness made her a delight to watch. As the overly verbose (and dirty-minded) Benjamin Franklin, Michael DeFillippi was comedic gold. Watching Richardson and DeFillippi play off of one another was like watching a 1970’s sitcom (further proof that this play is stuck in its time). This banter was further compounded to amusing results during their interactions with the “villains” – the cool, cool, (in)considerate John Dickinson, played by Tyler Crosby, and Christine Chilingerian’s darkly charismatic Edward Rutlegde.
A surprising standout came from Meghan Jolliffe, who was double cast as George Read and Martha Jefferson. When Jolliffee comes out as Read, the most notable thing is his ostentatious wig; however, when she comes onstage as Martha, it is apparent that she is the strongest singer in the company, and left me wishing that she had more to sing than just “He Plays the Violin.”
Other notable performances came from Jaie Deschene as Abigail Adams with a strong soprano and humor-laden lines, and Danielle Smith as the overly-proud-of-his-family-name Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, doing a terrific job of having fun with the campiness inherent in the script, and his namesake-song. With few exceptions, the ensemble held itself together and made for lively background performances.
And then there are the jokes that are made even better because of location, and specific associations: Adams’ shock at Thomas Jefferson enjoying a midday romp with his wife is punctuated with Franklin’s hilarious quip that not everyone is from Boston, and ergo not everyone is as sexually repressed as someone from Boston.
This year is the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and with the continued success of Hamilton, Founding Fathers in American Musical Theater is certainly enjoying a heyday, making 1776 a smart production choice.
* I later learned that the lighting designer walked out of the show during the final dress rehearsal. I suppose that explains some of it.