Gisela Adisa as "John Adams," Nancy Anderson as "Thomas Jefferson," and Liz Mikel as "Benjamin Franklin" in the National Tour of 1776. Credit: Joan Marcus.
1776, which features music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, is a show many long-time theater fans will be familiar with. After all, it made its Broadway debut back in 1969 and tells a familiar, fact-meets-fiction version of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In particular, it focuses on John Adams as he blazes trails and tries to get his peers on board with his vision.
However, there’s a whole new, revitalized version of the musical, onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), and it’s making waves for all the right reasons. The production features a diverse cast of women, transgender, and nonbinary actors, all led by innovative directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus. Together, they’ve brought a vision to life, much like the script’s characters do. The result is a circular, poignant, and surprisingly prescient musical with more weight and meaning than ever before.
The first act sets the historic stage with simple staging, a stark set, and dense dialogue, forcing viewers to turn their full focus on the indomitable performers and their imperfect characters. There’s the conflicted John Adams, portrayed in a relatable way by Gisela Adisa; the no-nonsense Ben Franklin, portrayed as both endearing and exasperated by the powerful Liz Mikel, and sweet, angelic Abigail Adams, tenderly acted by Tieisha Thomas. Add in Connor Lyon’s lovely, beautifully-voiced Martha Jefferson, and there’s certainly no shortage of talent or clever characterization. These stellar performances are complemented by Jeffrey L. Page’s quirky, dream-like choreography and the tongue-in-cheek delivery of many of the lyrics, which range from silly to positively haunting.
And, while the first act may be on the slow and somber side, the second serves as a smart, sharp contrast. It features color, vibrancy, and the perfect mix of hope and sadness. As it tackles tough themes with a no-holds-barred, brutally honest approach, viewers are left to reflect on not just the story itself, but the impact of its carefully-chosen performers. When the actors change, the lens through which we view history also changes.
Here, we have a story about the importance of representation, acted by historically underrepresented and underappreciated actors, and really, who better to tell this tale? The casting makes the script feel all the more relevant and pressing, providing a brand new, more contemplative take on not just 1776, but on history and the many lessons we still have to learn from it.
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