Seventeen-seventy snooze

No amount of clever casting can save the bloated book, lackluster music and dated story of 1776

Courtesy Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Hot off last year’s revival production at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, the national tour of 1776 is set to wrap its final weekend at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. 

The pitch to revive this Tony Award winner for Best Musical was simple: reimagine America’s political origin story with a racially diverse slate of women, transgender and nonbinary performers as America’s “Founding Fathers.” Yet, for a smartly casted musical about political turmoil, 1776’s politics are shockingly safe. 

While some conservative snowflakes might be triggered by the production’s casting decisions, the players aren’t the problem with the musical. In fact, the performers’ energy is the only thing keeping this poorly paced congressional procedural afloat.

Peter Stone’s script puts audiences in the halls of the Second Continental Congress as John Adams (Gisela Adisa) struggles to get his proposal for independence through Congress. The setting allows for the easy introduction of other famous political figures like Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson), Benjamin Franklin (Liz Mikel) and John Hancock (Oneika Phillips), and a multitude of heady philosophical debates. 

The real issue with 1776 is that it wastes the talents of the entire creative team on a revival of Stone’s dated musical from more than half a century ago, rather than creating space for this talented group of performers to create something new. Though directors Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus seek to make America’s founding fresh again by using new voices to tell the story, the show is bogged down by a script that presents a generic retelling of the birth of a nation. 

In defense of this production of 1776, casting performers who would have been denied property rights allows for a few well-directed moments that highlight the founders’ hypocrisy. But these feel underdeveloped in a production that spends a large portion of its nearly three-hour runtime examining the struggles of wealthy landowners who rose up against England to escape paying taxes. As hard as performers like Adisa and Mikel, as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, try to make Stone’s muddled book relevant, the cast is undercut by a script rife with parliamentary procedure and Sherman Edwards’ forgettable music.  

While states across the country seek to ban historical information about people of color and the LGBTQ+ community, this lackluster production’s Hamilton-ification of a bloated musical (about a topic that is not in jeopardy of being removed from classrooms anytime soon) is unurgent and uninspired. Despite a stacked cast, 1776 lacks the material to truly speak to the complicated political moment America faces in 2023. 

ON STAGE: 1776 by Peter Stone. Various times through April 2, Buell Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St. Tickets here.

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