Many years before the 1619 Project – the New York Times’ chronicle of when the first African slaves arrived on the American continent 400 years before – two Jews created the groundbreaking musical “1776.”
On Broadway in 1969, composer Sherman Edwards and book author Peter Stone confronted the Continental Congress’ debate about condemning slavery in the Declaration of Independence. Edwards, who taught history, and Stone, the son of a history teacher, extensively researched the meetings that led to that historic if compromised document for their Tony Award-winning production.
Now, codirectors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus are bringing new and very timely attention to the Declaration in a powerfully staged revival at the Loeb Drama Center copresented by American Repertory Theatre and Roundabout Theatre Company.
Provocatively, the diverse cast of the A.R.T.-RTC revival includes female, nonbinary, and trans actors. If the casting calls to mind the inclusion of African-American and Hispanic actors in the Tony-winning “Hamilton,” then this “1776” also should serve as a timely reminder that the actual “all men are created equal” in the Declaration excluded women, African-Americans, and anyone LGBTQ.
There is commanding work by the performers playing the lead Continental Congress figures. Crystal Lucas-Perry has all of John Adams’ passion for independence and obstinacy in dealing with fellow congressmen. Lucas-Perry brings satisfying tenderness to the Massachusetts legislator’s letter-driven “Till Then” duets with Allyson Kaye-Dani.
Elizabeth A. Davis captures the reserve of Thomas Jefferson in dealing with the outspoken Adams and compromising with Southern congressmen who demand the deletion of the condemnation of slavery. Patrena Murray makes the most of Benjamin Franklin’s humorous quips and iconoclastic demeanor as he strongly endorses the establishment of “a new nationality, a new nation.”
Equally impressive are the cast members playing the more conservative speakers. Joanna Glushak is a standout as Pennsylvania gadfly John Dickinson – whether facing off against Adams, cozying up to Southern counterparts, or refusing to sign the Declaration while promising to fight with the Continental Army.
Director Page – doubling as choreographer – gives Glushak and the other cast members playing the property-driven conservatives a sharp minuet that reflects their grandiosity. At other times, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson have well-danced soft-shoe moments. Sara Porkalob catches South Carolina legislator Edward Rutledge’s ferocious defense of slavery in “Molasses to Rum” – the musical’s best and most disturbing number.
Standouts in support are Eryn LeCroy as Martha Jefferson and Salome Smith as Courier. LeCroy combines an opera-worthy delivery and notable mischievousness on “He Plays the Violin.” Smith brings heartbreaking angst to the war grieving of “Mama Look Sharp.”
Very early on, the chorus-like legislators call on Adams to open up a window at their hot Philadelphia meeting. With their welcome updating, Page and Paulus bring timely fresh air to Edwards’ and Stone’s valuable ongoing history lesson.
“1776” runs through July 24 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. For tickets, visit www.amrep.org