December 3, 2022

How Broadway's "KPOP" Lost Its Mojo


The world of musical theater is divided right now between the people who saw KPOP before it came to Broadway and those who saw it afterward. I sadly fall into the latter group. 

The original production back in 2017 (the one that gives its attendees bragging rights) was an immersive theater piece, a joint production of Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective that staged its scenes over several floors of the A.R.T./New York Theatres building on West 53rd Street. It was such an instant hit that it sold out before I could get a ticket. 

So as soon as I heard it was coming to Broadway this season, KPOP shot right to the top of the list of shows I most wanted to see. But the production that opened this week at Circle in the Square isn’t the show that it once was. That’s because all the action now has to take place on one stage and to accommodate that, the creative team has reconceived the plot.

The conceit for both versions is supposed to be a peek behind the scenes at the music factories that have made K-pop—a fusion of traditional Korean folk music, contemporary pop, hip-hop, and R&B—so successful that acts like the South Korean boy band BTS and girl group Blackpink now regularly top the U.S. charts.  

The real-life story of South Korea’s decades-long campaign to build up and export its cultural products offers plenty of material for book writer Jason Kim, composer and lyricist Helen Park (the first Asian-American woman to compose a Broadway score) and co-lyricist Max Vernon to work with (click here to read about that history). 

And from everything I’ve heard and read, the 2017 version tried to grapple with some of the industry’s most controversial issues, including the relentless drive to perfect the highly-choreographed routines that have become trademarks of the genre; the continuous threat that performers are interchangeable and can be replaced in those manufactured acts by younger versions of themselves as they age; and the pressure to undergo plastic surgery to make the stars more acceptable to western eyes.

Almost all of that is missing in the current production. Instead, it’s loosely—very loosely—centered around the preparations for one factory’s debut presentation of its major acts in New York. Its boy band members are bickering because a Korean-American has replaced one of the longtime members and seems to be getting more media attention than the others. And the girl group members are worried that anything they say to a filmmaker following the group around will jeopardize their chances to breakout.  

Meanwhile the star is having a meltdown because she doesn’t know if she really wants to pursue international stardom or to settle down with her modest school teacher boyfriend. The role is usually played by the real-life K-pop star Luna but she was out the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show. Her understudy Amy Keum turned in a solid performance but I couldn't help wondering what extra spark Luna, who's also done musicals (she played Elle Woods in the South Korean production of Legally Blonde) might have brought to the part.

All of the young cast members, most of whom are making their Broadway debuts, work hard but their characters' storylines are so thinly drawn that it was hard to connect with any of them. And director Teddy Bergman seems at a loss for how to help them make the narrative more compelling. Instead he leans on his creative team to do the heavy lifting. They do what they can.

Gabriel Hainer Evansohn has designed a flexible set with telescoping platforms that provide music-video-style close-ups of the performers and trap floors that allow them to appear and disappear as needed. The setting is assisted by a kaleidoscope of video projections, including live feeds from the stage that pop up on the TV screens that surround the set. But the most valuable contribution may be Jiyoun Chang’s dynamic lighting scheme which does a better job of storytelling than the actual book does.

And of course Bergman leans heavily on the music. In between the scenes of faux angst, the cast performs numbers that are supposed to be for the fictional show but that actually make up the bulk of the show that audience members at Circle in the Square see.

As in real K-pop, some of the songs are sung in English, others in Korean and a few toggle back and forth between the languages. Most of the numbers, with the exception of the requisite power ballads, are upbeat and bouncy. 

All are energetically choreographed by Jennifer Weber (click here to read more about this up-and-comer) and they feature delightfully gaudy costumes by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi who come up with so many variations on boy-and-girl-band glamour wear that those outfits almost deserve a show of their own.

In the end, your enjoyment of KPOP will probably depend, unsurprisingly, on how you feel about K-pop music. Two elderly white women in our row could hardly wait for the lights to come up at intermission before they made their way for the door. But the young Asian couple sitting next to me could hardly contain their joy, bouncing along and clapping to almost every song.  As for me, I now wish even more that I had seen the 2017 version.


November 26, 2022

Succumbing to the Charms of "& Juliet"

 

& Juliet, the exuberant new musical that mashes up Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the songbook of the pop hitmaker Max Martin wasn’t made for me. It was made for the tween girls sitting behind my niece Jennifer and me who clearly identified with the show's eponymous heroine and spent the intermission debating the choice they wanted her to make. Their consensus: reject all romantic options and go off on her own.  

The show was also made for the fortysomething-year-old guy sitting next to me who nodded fiercely to the bops and sighed deeply at the power ballads that Martin (click here to read more about him) has written over the past 30 years for the likes of Arianda Grande, Katy Perry and the Backstreet Boys and that no doubt provided the coming-of-age soundtrack for both my seatmate and my niece. Cause Jennifer loved the show too.

But don’t worry if you don’t fall into either Gen X or Gen Z because there’s a good chance that you’ll still have a good time at & Juliet. To my (Boomer) surprise, I did even though I have only a passing knowledge of Martin’s songs and found all kinds of holes in the show’s jerry-rigged plot. 

Written by David West Read, an executive producer of the cult TV comedy series “Schitt’s Creek," (click here to read more about him) & Juliet starts with Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway turning up at the premiere of his tragedy about the star-crossed young lovers and proposing a rewrite in which Juliet not only lives but embarks on a journey of self-discovery, accompanied by her devoted Nurse and—since this is a 21st century gloss on the 16th century—a nonbinary best friend named May.  

They head off to Paris because, well why not. There they encounter a confused young nobleman who woos Juliet in an attempt to prove his manliness to his macho father, who, as it so happens, has a romantic past with the nurse. Complications ensue. All of them underscored—and overscored—by nearly 30 of Martin’s hits.

But this is a jukebox musical that doesn’t take itself too seriously (it even opens with a jukebox sitting onstage) and everyone involved is far more committed to getting as many people as possible leaving the theater with smiles on their faces. 

So the plot’s silliness is intentional. The Shakespeares quibble over who should hold the quill that somehow gives them control over the narrative they're supposedly writing. Anne wants to take it in a feminist direction; Will tries to circle back to the original version. Meanwhile Read throws in winking references to the real Bard that are just knowing enough to make audience members feel smart when they notice them. 

The creative team is onboard too. Costume designer Paloma Young dresses the cast in a stylish mix of Elizabethan and contemporary wear that wouldn’t look out of place at a cool downtown club. Video designer Andrzej Goulding and lighting designer Howard Hudson join forces to create eye-dazzling effects that would do a rock concert proud. And director Luke Sheppard and the show's very busy choreographer Jennifer Weber (click here to read about her) keep the action moving with actors break dancing and tumbling across the stage, dropping from the ceiling and flying into the rafters.

But the highest praise has to go to the fantastic cast, led by Lorna Courtney, a charming triple threat—singing, dancing, girl powering—who's making her Broadway debut as Juliet. And just as appealing are Broadway vets Stark Sands as the Bard, who's trying to wrench his play back from his wife without wrecking their marriage; and Betsy Wolfe feisty and slyly funny as Anne.

In supporting roles, Melanie La Barrie is an inveterate scene stealer as the nurse (it’s also great to see a round, brown woman in a musical who isn’t required to sing a gospel number) and in the role of the noble dad, Paulo Szot (a Tony winner for the 2008 revival of South Pacific) is clearly delighted at being in on all the antics, including the wearing of a huge codpiece.   

Now, this is the spot where I should throw in some pun on one of Martin’s lyrics but I’m not familiar enough with the songs to do that. Instead, I’ll sum up my thoughts about his show with a quote form the latter-day bard Stephen King, “You can’t deny laughter; when it comes, it plops down in your favorite chair and stays as long as it wants.”  For & Juliet, that stay should be a long one.


November 19, 2022

Digging Deep Into Empathy With "Downstate"

Bruce Norris has a knack for making people uncomfortable.  His 2006 play The Pain and the Itch featured a 4-year-old with a genital rash, a metaphor for her family’s dysfunction that called for the young actor playing the part to scratch her crotch constantly which caused some theatergoers to accuse the play of child abuse. His 2010 Pulitzer and Tony winner Clybourne Park took on the issues of race and wokeness in a riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun that so riled some black members of the theatrical community that several wrote plays to refute it (click here to read about one of them). And now comes Downstate, a provocative meditation on remorse, righteous anger and retribution set in a halfway house for sex offenders.

 All three of those plays also contain scenes and exchanges that are laugh-out-loud funny. Which of course only adds to the discomfort of engaging with them. So you can understand why I shifted around uneasily in my seat at Playwrights Horizons where Downstate is currently scheduled to run through Dec. 11. But when I got home, I couldn't stop thinking about the play and the moral quandries it poses.

Downstate opens in the middle of a conversation between an old guy in a motorized wheelchair and a couple in theirs 40s who might be paying an obligatory visit to an older relative in a nursing home, except that a few lines in, the husband Andy calls the old guy “a fundamentally evil person” and describes how he has fantasized about killing him.  

For the old guy, whose name is Fred, is a former piano teacher who sexually abused Andy when he was 12. Fred now lives in a group home with three other offenders: Dee, a former dancer who when he was in 30s carried on a two-year sexual relationship with a teenager during a national tour of Peter Pan; Felix who committed incest with his young daughter and Gio who had sex with an underage girl who he swears told him she was 18.

They’ve all served their sentences but they’re still required to wear ankle bracelets that track where they go. They’re forbidden to have smartphones or any access to the internet. And a probation officer regularly monitors their activities and updates them on changes in their restrictions, including the latest that prohibits trips to a nearby supermarket because neighbors, who sometimes throw things at the house, have complained that the store is too close to a school.

Norris digs into each offender’s story, giving each man a chance to say why he believes he's a victim too. And although he’s a little less generous to Andy and his wife, Norris also allows them to make the case for how being abused can have long-lasting effects on the life of people struggling to survive that abuse and those who love them.

Under the deft direction of Norris’s frequent collaborator Pam MacKinnon, the performances are all superb. But first among equals are Frances Guinan and K. Todd Freeman. 

Guinan astutely nails how Fred both acknowledges responsibility for his crimes and yet desperately invests in the belief that he's really just a genial guy with a minor flaw. Meanwhile, Freeman adds layers of nuance to the role of Dee who insists that he’s done no wrong but knows that absolution will remain out of reach.

There are no easy answers to the questions their situations raise. Should people who have paid their debt to society be allowed to go on with their lives?  Sure. Would I want people who have committed such predatory crimes to live anywhere near me or those I love? Absolutely not.

Those of us who consider ourselves theater people like to talk about empathy. In Downstate Norris challenges us to confront exactly what that takes. “I feel compassion for those who’ve fucked up their lives,” he told Chicago Magazine when the play premiered at Steppenwolf in 2018. “If you want to extend compassion in the world, you have to extend it to everyone, not just to those you think deserve it.”


November 5, 2022

Life and Death Stories In "Everything's Fine," "Walking With Ghosts," "Where the Mountain Meets the Sea," and "My Broken Language"


The writer Joan Didion once said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But lately an increasing number of theater makers have not only been telling the stories of their lives but sharing them onstage. Over just the last three weeks I’ve seen four shows that look back at the lives of the people who created them and this week it was announced that Anthony Rapp, the original Mark in Rent, plans to bring a one-man show based on his 2006 memoir “Without You” to New World Stages in January.

It could be that producers like these shows because they tend to have small casts—sometimes just the one person—minimal scenery and almost no costume changes. But I suspect that the trend also has something to do with the fact that so many of us have gotten used to sharing our lives on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok. As Andy Warhol allegedly predicted, we’re all searching for our 15 minutes of fame. 

The challenge for the theatrical seekers is to make it clear why the rest of us should want to spend time with their stories and what those stories can tell us about our own lives. Here’s how four shows have fared at those tasks:

EVERYTHING'S FINE: Douglas McGrath got a Tony nomination for writing the book for the Carole King musical Beautiful and he earned an Oscar nomination for co-authoring the screenplay for the 1994 backstage comedy "Bullets Over Broadway" so he was no stranger to showbiz stories. Which made it somewhat surprising that his one-man show, which opened last month at the DR2 Theater in Union Square, focused on his Texas boyhood in the early 1970s. 

McGrath and his director John Lithgow (yes, that John Lithgow) allowed their narrative to meander a bit before they zeroed in on the 14-year-old Doug’s experience with a female history teacher in her 40s who became obsessed with him, left him notes, called him at home. The story didn’t go quite where you thought it would and the strained attempts to tie it into McGrath’s feelings about his late father left me wondering why I should care. 

And then, just as I was writing this post, came the news that McGrath, only 64, had suddenly died on Thursday night. In an interview he did last month with my BroadwayRadio colleague Matt Tamanini, (click here to hear it) McGrath said he didn’t want to hold onto the anger and bitterness he’d felt in the past and I’m sorry that it took his passing for me to grasp that message his show was trying to share with me.

WALKING WITH GHOSTS: The Irish actor Gabriel Byrne dips back into his childhood too in this one-man show based on the highly-praised memoir of the same name that he published last year. I haven’t read the book but it’s clear from the play that Byrne is an excellent writer, with a keen eye for detail and a poet’s ear for language. And yet, the transfer from the page to the stage isn’t a smooth one. 

For starters, the show’s running time of two-and-a-half hours is far too long. Directed by Byrne’s friend Lonny Price (yes, that Lonny Price) it unspools in a series of vignettes (happy trips with his grandmother to the movies, a tragic encounter with a pedophile priest) that probably worked in the book when you had time to stop and ponder how those people, or ghosts, from his past helped to make Byrne the man—and the artist—he is today. But there simply isn’t enough time to absorb those life lessons as they tumble out one after another onstage, despite the blackouts that mark the end of each short tale. 

To be sure, there are some pleasures: Byrne’s discovery of the amateur theater group that began his career is a delight and his account of an Bacchanalian evening spent with Richard Burton is the kind of peek behind the celebrity curtain that I wish he had shared more. 

Still, Byrne is good company (click here to watch an interview with him) and your enjoyment of his show, which is running at Broadway’s Music Box theater through Dec. 31, will probably depend on whether you feel that just seeing him in the flesh and hearing the lovely Irish lilt of his voice justify the cost of the ticket.

WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE SEA: I may be stretching here since I don’t know for sure that this musical about a father and son now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Center Stage space through Nov. 27, is autobiographical. But playwright Jeff Augustin’s book sure plays as though it is. Like Augustin’s dad, the father in the play immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti and like Augustin the son grew up to be a gay man. 

The story is told in alternating monologues by the father who takes a trip west with his wife while she’s pregnant with their first child; and by their now-grown son who years later is traveling east to collect the ashes of his recently deceased father. The actors—Billy Eugene Jones and Chris Myers—who portray them are excellent. But they don’t sing all that much. Instead, the husband-and-wife duo The Bengsons perform the score that they wrote on onstage.

I’ve enjoyed the Bengsons’ folksy, gospel-tinged music in Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones, the semi-autobiographical shows based on their lives, but the couple seems out of place here. This is a story about two black men struggling to connect with one another and so I don’t get why two white people are singing about them. 

And while the songs are lovely, they don’t advance the plot and there’s a sameness to them that eventually wears out whatever welcome they did have. Still, anyone who has yearned for a closer relationship with a father or a son may find themselves tearing up at the end.

MY BROKEN LANGUAGE: This adaptation of the memoir that playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes published last year doesn’t open at Signature Theatre until next week and I don’t want to jump the review embargo but the show fits so perfectly into this theme that I can’t resist mentioning it. Both the book and the play center around the women—her grandmother, her aunts, her cousins, her baby sister and especially her mother—in the extended Puerto Rican family that dominated Hudes’ childhood growing up in Philadelphia in the ‘80s and ‘90s 

Some of her family members fell victim to the AIDS and drugs that plagued their neighborhood back then but Hudes would win a scholarship to Yale and later study playwriting under Paula Vogel at Brown University. She then wrote the book for the Tony-winning musical In the Heights and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her play Water By The Spoonful, the second in a trilogy inspired by the life of a male cousin who suffered with PTSD after serving in Iraq. 

However in 2018, after lukewarm receptions to two plays she did at the Public Theater, Hudes announced that U.S. theater’s slowness to embrace diversity had sapped her interest in continuing to write for it (read more about that here). But the chance to put the stories of her female relatives onstage has obviously wooed her back. 

That storytelling, which mixes monologues, song, dance and Santeria rituals, may remind some theatergoers of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The actors in the five-person cast, which includes Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in Rent, trade off roles and each of them gets a turn to play the playwright at various times in her life. Hudes is directing the show herself so what audiences see will be the way she wants to tell the story of her life.

 

 


October 25, 2022

In Memoriam: Seymour "Red" Press

My friend Seymour "Red" Press died yesterday. Although to call him a friend doesn’t really describe what he meant to my husband K and me. Red was a longtime musical contractor and K, a trumpet player, met him when Red hired him to play in the orchestra for Sophisticated Ladies. But over the next 40 years, the relationship between them deepened into a kind of loving father-son bond such that whenever we made plans to see Red and his much beloved wife Nona, I told people that I was going to spend time with my in-laws.  

We shared many dinners, sometimes in our homes but more often at a favorite French bistro or Italian restaurant where they knew us and let us linger. We talked about theater of course but also about books, places we'd traveled to or wanted to see, what was going on with our families and politics. Red had fought to strengthen the musicians' union in the 1960s and he was committed to diversity decades before that became trendy, going out of his way to hire black and brown musicians. I adored him.

But K and I weren’t the only ones who loved Red. Almost everybody in the business did. That was evident eight years ago when so many theater folks (actors, directors, composers, conductors, producers, house managers, dancers, musicians and more) crammed into the upstairs room at the Glass House Tavern to surprise him for his 90th birthday. If someone had wanted to they could have put on a full Tony-caliber production just with the people who had gathered in that room to celebrate him.

A woodwind player, Red started out playing the saxophone in big bands, including those lead by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. But in 1957, he got a job playing in the orchestra for the Broadway musical The Body Beautiful. It ran just 60 performances but he made it back to Broadway a year later playing for the original production of Gypsy. And by the 1970s, he began his career as a contractor, hiring the musicians to play in the pit. 

He worked on over 90 Broadway productions. He also helped to create the New York City Center Encores! program, where he worked on another 75 productions. In 2007, he received a Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre (click here to hear him talk about his career). 

Red never stopped loving theater or working at it. Although he turned 98 last February, he has three new productions in the current 2022-2023 season: Into the Woods, Almost Famous and KPOP. 

But shortly after Nona's death last year, Red decided to move into an assisted living facility to be near his daughter Gwynn and her family. She told K that yesterday morning Red told the workers there that he wanted to go to Broadway. So they put on show tunes and he passed while listening to the music he loved and dedicated his life to sharing with the rest of us. 

I'm going to miss him.  A lot.


October 15, 2022

A Nay for "Baldwin & Buckley at Cambridge"

As a recent story in the online magazine TDF Stages noted, James Baldwin is having a theatrical moment (click here to read more about it). The black writer and intellectual, who died in 1987 at just 63, has appeared as a character in three quasi-documentary plays this year. 

Last spring at the Vineyard Theatre, the theater collective The Commissary re-created the TV interview between the poet Nikki Giovanni and Baldwin in Lessons in Survival: 1971. The theater company the american vicarious is currently touring venues throughout New York City's five boroughs with Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley, a recreation of the 1965 encounter that took place when the Cambridge Union invited Baldwin and the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. to argue the question of whether the American Dream had been achieved at the expense of the American Negro.

Meanwhile, Elevator Repair Service is offering Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge, its version of that Cambridge debate, at the Public Theater through next weekend. That’s the one I caught, tempted by ERS’s reputation for taking famous texts and dramatizing them word-for-word even though I haven’t been as taken with their previous shows as others have been.   

I wish I could say this production had changed my mind about ERS. But although the Cambridge students voted 544 yeas to 164 nays in favor of Baldwin, I'm going to have to vote nay for this barely dramatized and minimally staged version of his debate. At least, unlike ERS's eight-and-a-half hour reading of “The Great Gatsby” (click here to read my review of that), this show lasted just a little more than an hour. Even so, I found that my mind wandered.

The show starts, as the real debate did, with two Cambridge students speaking on either side of the question. Both students were white and so it’s somewhat baffling why director John Collins cast the black actor Christopher-Rashee Stevenson to play the student arguing that the American Dream did not exclude African Americans during their first 350 years in this country when they were subjected to the horrors of slavery, the failures of Reconstruction and the oppression of Jim Crow segregation.

But the production's main problem is that it’s hard to replicate Baldwin’s singular charisma. Greig Sargeant, who conceived the project for ERS, is dark-skinned and small in stature just as Baldwin was but, alas, the similarities end there. It might not be necessary to emulate the distinctive and slightly posh way that Baldwin spoke but anyone playing him needs to be able to radiate both the brilliance and the anger that fueled his words. 

Sargeant clearly cares deeply about this project (click here to hear him talk about it) but there’s a whiny quality about his performance that undercuts the passion of Baldwin's still relevant message.

Ben Jalosa Williams doesn't imitate Buckley’s upper-class drawl either. But nor does he capture the disdain that Buckley often exhibited when he believed he was dealing with intellectual inferiors and that he used in his Cambridge speech as he urged African Americans to just work harder if they wanted to do better. So the portrayal comes off as rather bland. 

The audience is supposed to fill in for the Cambridge students but, polite theatergoers, we were also a poor substitute for the cheering and braying familiar to anyone who has watched episodes of the British Parliament’s raucous Question Time. 

Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge tries to save itself with a coda that imagines a scene between Baldwin and his good friend the playwright Lorraine Hansberry but it's too little and too late.

The one good thing I can say about Baldwin & Buckley At Cambridge is that it prompted me to watch the real 1965 debate on YouTube (click here to see it). The words, of course, were the same but this time the effect was riveting. It was so good, I watched the entire thing and my mind didn’t wander once.


October 6, 2022

The New "1776" Isn't Revolutionary Enough


Revivals used to be fairly simple. A producer would take a beloved title or maybe even an underappreciated one, cast it with a star or two and voilà, a show. But that’s not how it goes nowadays. Instead of theatergoers greeting revivals with “It’s so great to see you again,” they’re now asking, “Why are you here?” “What do you have to say about the way we live now?”

So that’s how we get a Company with a female Bobbie.  Or A Death of a Salesman with a black Loman family.  Or a 1776 with female, non-binary and trans actors portraying the Founding Fathers. Sometimes these new interpretations work. Sometimes they don’t. And I’m sorry to have to say that for me, the production of 1776 that opened this week at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre doesn’t.

The story of the contentious days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and the shameful compromise that was made to get the job done was always a tough challenge for a musical. It’s basically just a bunch of white guys in breeches, waistcoats and perukes yelling at one another. The entire score consists of just 12 songs, with one reprise.

But somehow composer Sherman Edwards and book writer Peter Stone managed to turn all of that into an entertaining—and surprisingly suspenseful—musical that beat out Hair for the Tony in 1969 and ran for 1,217 performances. 

The show has been one of my favorites since I saw the original production from a seat high in the balcony during a spring break from college. And every Fourth of July, I try to watch at least some of the 1972 movie version, which was filmed with almost the entire original Broadway cast, including the invaluable William Daniels balancing just the right mix of sweet and sour as the right-minded but irascible John Adams.

The new 1776 does start off promisingly. All the members of the ensemble—diverse in terms of age, color, ethnicity, gender identity and size—walk onstage wearing various forms of streetwear and then they put on frock coats, take off their footwear, pull up the kind of white knee-length stockings men wore in the 18th century and step into the buckled shoes that have been waiting along the rim of the stage: a clever and clear statement that they are now stepping into the roles of the men who founded this country. 

Alas, the show goes down from there. And that’s mainly because it’s a concept without a cause, failing to make the argument for why those actors are stepping into those shoes. When Hamilton cast black and brown actors as the Founding Fathers, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail made the case that this country also belongs to the people who had been previously disenfranchised by it. 

But Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, who co-directed this revival of 1776, just have their actors go through the motions of the musical. Their revival was conceived before the coronavirus pandemic but they’ve recently said that they want it to reflect the racial reckoning set off by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 (click here to read one of those interviews).  

That retrofitting has produced a few on-the-nose gestures: the new character of Jefferson’s body slave has been added but given no lines except for an ironic but-not-me head shake when Jefferson talks about all men being created equal; a dance mimics enslaved Africans in chains during “Molasses to Rum,” without bringing any new insights into that song about the slave trade that has always been part of the musical.  

The sense of suspense about whether the quarreling delegates will ever reach an agreement that usually animates the play is also lost. Hell, even the calendar that has traditionally hung on the wall, counting down the days to July 4, is missing here. It’s been replaced by intermittent video projections of dates but they’re too easily forgotten. 

More damaging is the fact that with a few exceptions (Shawna Hamic appropriately hamming it up as South Carolina’s vain delegate Richard Henry Lee, Patrena Murray’s droll take on Benjamin Franklin) the actors don’t do enough with the characters. Crystal Lucas-Perry, who will be leaving the production at the end of the month to join the upcoming Ain't No' Mo," gives too much honey and too little vinegar to her portrayal of John Adams. 

When you add it all up, the enterprise carries the whiff of a middling community theater production. Even Scott Pask’s bare-bones set looks less like a concept than something that was done on a tight budget. And the video projections toward the end of the second act come off as a Hail Mary pass for relevancy.

So a production that should offer smart commentary instead just seems gimmicky. It’s great to see so many female-identifying actors on a stage but 1776 was composed primarily for men’s voices (there are only two female roles—Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams—in the piece). And the revival stumbles here too. 

There are few more rousing opening numbers than “Sit Down, John,” in which his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress admonish Adams, the pre-eminent but annoying advocate for separation from the British, to stop heckling them. I had hoped that this production would imbue that number with the passionate roar of the pussyhat-wearing participants in the 2017 Women's March. Instead, the song sounded like a track from the 1970s bubblegum band Josie and the Pussycats. 

All of which left me wondering, Why is this show here?