LOS ANGELES (News4usonline) – The nation’s Founding Fathers were white men. Old white men. One group of people. The cast of “1776” looks the opposite of that. The Tony Award-winning musical flips this narrative and comes through with women telling the story of our forefathers. I know what you’re thinking.
This is probably just another version of “Hamilton,” a theatre phenom that bounds hip-hop with a cast made up largely of people of color who gives audiences another version of representation of how America came into being.
I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but “1776” is a much different show than the offering of “Hamilton.” While “1776” is a musical, this theatrical production is not a remix of “Hamilton.” All that be-bopping that has made “Hamilton” a once-in-a-generation production should not be confused with the nuanced and deliberate delivery of “1776.”
If anything, “Hamilton borrows a page or two from the original “1776,” which made its stage debut back in 1969. This more up-to-date version of “1776” goes the way of “Hamilton by bringing a much more diverse cast to its show. Making this showcase even more profound is the fact that “1776’ has a cast that includes women, transgender and nonbinary actors.
Whereas “Hamilton” focuses more or less on the immigrant story of Alexander Hamilton, “1776” concentrates on the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. All the major players are in the room.
John Adams (a relentless Gisela Adisa) is all over the place. John Hancock (played by the dominating presence of Oneika Phillips), who serves as the president of the [Second Continental] Congress, lays the law down as the adult in the room. Benjamin Franklin, played by a show-stopping Liz Mikel, seems to have humorous one-liners attached to her hip pocket.
We see Thomas Jefferson (Nancy Anderson) more focused on being a hapless romantic. In “Hamilton,” Jefferson is more of a swashbuckler and flamboyant figure than anything he does in “1776.” So let’s get to the gist of “1776. First, the diversity of the cast is its best attribute. There’s no single demographic represented here. This is what makes it great.
The first half of the two-hour and 45-minute performance is more concentrated on dialogue rather than singing. The show opens up a lot more in the second half when singing dominates the platform.
Perhaps the most moving song of the whole production comes from Connor Lyon, who plays the role of Martha Jefferson. Lyon sounds like an absolute angelic songbird as she nails the song in one big lyrical gush in the second half of the performance. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Probably one of the more telling fixtures of this musical comes right at the beginning of the performance when Adisa measuredly walks on stage and glances at this giant mural of the Founding Fathers. The contrast couldn’t be more significant. And stunning.
The portrait of the Founding Fathers is one of older men. All white, mind you. Then there is Adisa, a Black woman who walks on stage with a purpose and attitude. An attitude that says unapologetically that this is a different era, a different America. For sure, if John Adams had Adisa’s swag, he’d had a lot more going on.
Better yet, he would have signed off on the Declaration of Independence himself instead of letting Jefferson, a slave owner, command ownership of it. All this talk about freedom and liberty didn’t rub off too much on the owners of slaves like Jefferson and George Washington.
Once again, here is the difference between “Hamilton” and “1776.” While “Hamilton” gives more of a passing fancy gesture on the subject of slavery, “1776” doesn’t shy away at all from the always uncomfortable topic.
Adisa, as Adams, is rather unnerving and kind of gets under your skin as this Founding Father. But being terribly annoying was sort of the individual Adams was. Adisa is the right showperson for this role. She is very good at commanding the stage and brings a lot of depth to the character. But the actor who overshadows Adisa is Phillips.
In playing Hancock, Phillips is a powerful presence on the stage without having to say too much. Her voice is both commanding and authoritative as she rules the [Second Continental] Congress with an iron fist as the no-nonsense Hancock. Though her role is somewhere in the midrange area, Phillips has lead stardom in a major production written all over her. It’s just a matter of time before this is born into fruition.
The same might be said of Mikel. Mikel brings a refreshing breath of air to the role of Franklin. She’s quick-witted, has a deadpan delivery over her lines, and owns the space she walks in. And Brooke Simpson. My goodness, what a voice! There are people who sing. Then there are individuals who can sing. Simpson can sing.
The solo number that Simpson belts out in the latter part of “1776” is worth the price of admission by itself. The “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice alum has a once-in-a-lifetime voice, one that will open many doors for her acting and singing career.
However, it’s not just two or three people that make “1776” a wonderful production. It’s the entire cast.
Featured Image Caption: Gisela Adisa in the National Tour of “1776. “1776” plays at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre April 11-May 7, 2023. Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Dennis has covered and written about politics, crime, social justice, sports, and entertainment. Dennis currently covers the NFL, MLB, NBA, NCAA, and Olympic sports. Dennis is the editor of News4usonline.com and serves as the publisher of the Compton Bulletin newspaper. He earned a journalism degree from Howard University.