A new set of storytellers for revival of ‘1776’

Sushma Saha, Sara Porkalob, Mehry Eslaminia, Gisela Adisa, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Elizabeth A. Davis, Becca Ayers, Brooke Simpson, and Oneika Phillips in 1776, playing now through July 24 at American Repertory Theater. Credit: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made.

CAMBRIDGE – History belongs to the historians. But stories belong to the storytellers.

So Lin-Manuel Miranda can remake the story of one of the Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, in his own image and create the smash-hit musical “Hamilton.”

Or you can take an existing story that has been around for 250 years or so and give it a makeover so that while the story and characters remain intact, it has new relevance for today’s audiences.

After a two-year delay forced by Covid 19, the American Repertory Theater and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s co-production of the 1969 Tony-winning musical “1776” is now being presented at the Loeb Drama Center through July 24.

The refashioned and reimagined work will begin performances at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre in New York City in September before embarking on a 16-city nationwide tour in February 2023.

Those who gathered as members of the Continental Congress in the late 18th Century to consider breaking away from Mother England were all white men who enjoyed the privileges and rights then accorded only to white men.

In this lively revival, the cast is a rainbow with multiple representations of race, ethnicity, and gender, identifying as female, trans, and non-binary. But, from the moment as the play begins and they don the colonial-era waistcoats and footwear, they are tasked with finding their inner Ben Franklin or John Adams and bringing to life the stirring story of a new nation being born.

“1776” boasts an ensemble cast with nary a weak link but there are some performances that rise above the rest.

Crystal Lucas-Perry effectively mixes cocksure confidence and fiery rhetoric in the showy role of Massachusetts delegate John Adams, the ultimate agitator for independence, while Patrena Murray is a strong, solid presence as the wizened Dr. Benjamin Franklin, who along with the other delegates is forced to make a deal with the devil to find a way to independence.

Sara Porkalob (center) and members of the company of 1776, playing now through July 24 at American Repertory Theater. Credit: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made.

Joanna Glushak gives depth and dignity to Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson, an imperious supporter of the status quo, as exemplified in the musical number “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.”

Elizabeth A. Davis is the taciturn Virginian Thomas Jefferson, whose problem with writer’s block when it comes to the Declaration of Independence ends when his “needs” are met by the lovely Martha Jefferson (Eryn LeCroy), whose rendition of “He Plays the Violin” is a musical highlight.

Shawma Hamic’s life-of-the-party delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia is hilarious, and the rollicking “The Lees of Old Virginia” another musical highlight.

Co-directors Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, who also designed the choreography, have stayed true to the text while finding a myriad of ways to make  powerful statements. One comes at the outset of the production, when the cast sheds their real identities and dons the waistcoats of the colonial era to become the delegates of the Continental Congress. After the final curtain, they will re-appear sans costumes to take a bow and reveal themselves for who they really are: The faces of today’s America.

The book by Peter Stone shows how, just like making sausage, the birth of a new nation can be a rather messy process, especially when it comes to getting 13 colonies on the same page. Yes, America became a new country, but a country that began life laden with the baggage of 500,000 black souls in chains.

Still, Stone sprinkles his story with wit and local color, including the moment when an aghast Adams watches Jefferson take his wife back into their boudoir.  “You don’t mean they’re going to … in the middle of the afternoon?” “Not everyone’s from Boston, John,” quips Franklin. Or when Adams debates with Jefferson the use of a word while reminding him “I am a graduate of Harvard.”

“1776” is not and never has been a big dance musical but choreographer Page has done an excellent job amplifying, enhancing and expanding the movement available. That’s especially true during the show’s best number, “Molasses to Rum,” when South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, powerfully performed by Sarah Porkalob. issues a scathing indictment of hypocritical Northerners and their slave ships involved in the infamous “Triangle Trade.” 

The score by Sherman Edwards also includes the mournful ballad “Momma, Look Sharp,” an ode of the horrors of war winningly performed by the Courier (Salome Smith), whose task it is to bring to the Congress ever more disturbing and discouraging missives on the state of the war from Gen. George Washington.

For the first time in a professional production of “1776,” the script includes—with the permission of the Stone and Edwards estates—an excerpt of Abigail Adams’ March 31, 1776 letter to John Adams. Allyson Kaye Daniel as Abigail asks her husband to  “Remember the Ladies” and to be kind and generous to them  in any new Code of Laws and reminding John that “all men would be tyrants if they could” and that we “will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

The production also depicts Jefferson’s 14-year-old slave, Robert Hemings (Imani Pearl Williams), who often traveled with him and was with him at the Continental Congress.

Paulus and Page have enlisted a sterling set of designers such as Tony Award-winning set designer Scott Pask, and the projections by  David Bengali are especially effective in amplifying the themes the directors are highlighting.

With this “1776,” the story itself hasn’t changed, but those telling the story to a new generation of theater-goers has, and they have made it their own.

American Repertory Theater and Roundabout Theatre Company present “1776.”    Music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Book by Peter Stone.  Directed by Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page. Choreography by Jeffrey L. Page.  At the Loeb Drama Center through July 24. AmericanRepertoryTheater.org

Patrena Murray, Eryn LeCroy, and Elizabeth A. Davis  in 1776, playing now through July 24 at American Repertory Theater. Credit: Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made.