Touring production of non-traditional 1776 is the show at its most powerful and poignant

Photo by Joan Marcus

Following in the huge footprints of Hamilton, the prototype of atypically-cast Founding Father stories, last year’s revival of 1776, with a multiracial cast of female, transgender, and nonbinary actors, sought to shake up our perceptions of yet another part of American history.

It opened to decidedly mixed reviews.

This week’s Chicago opening of the national touring company version of the show, however, serves as potent evidence of that old maxim that you should always “try, try again.” This version of the show, still directed by Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, has managed to find the raison d’etre that, according to some reviewers, was simply missing in New York. It turns out that it isn’t enough to simply cast women in male roles in order to comment substantially on the story of the Declaration of Independence; you also have to allow them to continue being women at the same time.

It would be stereotypical and probably a bit misogynist (not to mention untrue) to say that women playing these roles somehow soften the historical characters. Gisela Adisa’s performance as John Adams, the leading character here, is anything but soft. However, when comparing her performance to that of, say, William Daniels (who originated the role in 1969 and also starred in the film version), it’s impossible to miss the differences. Daniels and original director Peter Hunt clearly followed the lead of writers Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone in portraying Adams, who was actually an ace orator who was popular in congress, as opposed to the “obnoxious and disliked” purveyor of a generally unwanted call for “independency.”

This too was historically inaccurate; most of the assembly in fact favored the concept of formally breaking away from England.

Adisa’s Adams is not soft, but also is not the universally unlikable character promulgated by Edwards and Stone. Yes, the congress is sick of hearing from him constantly about the same topic, but mostly because it seems hopeless and the (obviously) non-air-conditioned Philadelphia chamber in which they debated was bloody hot. Despite the flies that pour in when they do so, the members call repeatedly to “open up the window” in the same song in which Adams is told over and over to “sit down.” This version of the show makes the heat far more obnoxious than the man from Massachusetts.

Though we are told often (even by Adams himself) that he is unpopular, Adisa’s portrayal is far from the gruff characterization created by Daniels. The fact is that her Adams is (don’t tell anyone) likable…especially to those of us not sweltering in a stuffy room listening to repeated iterations of the same call for independence. Her Adams is even unabashedly romantic: his relationship with his wife Abigail (Tieisha Thomas), aided by some outstanding staging and Thomas’s charismatic performance, is actually more believably loving than the showpiece romance of Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson) and his wife Martha (Connor Lyon), which relies only on youthful passion and sex rather than the more mature admiration of two people who have grown together through the years despite knowing each other’s flaws. (This does nothing to diminish the beauty—and openly sexual yearning—of Lyon’s “He Plays the Violin,” which now ends Act One on a far more positive note than the original ending, “Mama, Look Sharp.”)

Speaking of that powerful ode to the lives lost in war, Brooke Simpson’s Courier plaintively delivers its provocative passion in Act Two. Men and women in the audience near me were visibly dabbing their eyes by its finish.

Other notable performances among a universally excellent ensemble: Oneika Phillips making John Hancock far more than a huge, elegant signature on a historical document; Liz Mikel utterly inhabiting the persona of Ben Franklin; Joanna Glushak, as British apologist and seemingly immovable obstacle to independence John Dickinson; and Kassandra Haddock, as a stand-in for the entire South, arguing for slavery to remain in the Declaration.

Haddock’s performance of the extremely dark “Molasses to Rum,” a song that condemns the North as much as the South for the slave trade, stands out as perhaps the most provocative moment in the play. Aided by projections from David Bengali that flash-forward us through two and a half centuries of what resulted from America’s “original sin” and choreography that features the Black members of the ensemble, the already powerful song evokes an absolutely draining horror beyond any version I’ve seen before.

Another mostly solo number, the jaunty “The Lees of Old Virginia,” is wonderfully done by Shawna Hamic. It is perhaps the one time in the entire musical that seems dedicated to the proposition that having pure, unadulterated fun is a good thing, even in the middle of a revolution.

I’ve seen several versions of 1776 done traditionally. I liked them, but I did not feel moved by them. At intermission, I feared that this one too would ultimately fall short of the kind of passion that its subject matter deserves. The second act, however, with its compelling performances and higher stakes, changes everything. Watching Anderson-as-Jefferson reluctantly agree to dozens of mostly petty changes to his careful, poetic document before ardently defending the anti-slavery paragraph—and then dejectedly striking it out—is almost a show-within-a-show. And the moment when the Declaration is finally adopted is brilliant: it seems to catch absolutely the whole congress off guard that, instead of piddling and twiddling, which Adams said was all it could actually do, it had just made history and laid the groundwork for a new nation.

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