Theatre Review: ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company

The cast of ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company.

“Hamilton” may be the buzzy American origin story that everyone has been talking about since its premiere in 2015, but did you know that a different—albeit much less flashy—musical forged that path almost 50 years earlier? While “political procedural with the occasional chorus line” might be a more accurate description than “musical” for “1776,” it undeniably gets O.G status when it comes to Broadway depictions of the founding fathers. “1776” doesn’t have “Hamilton’s” cannons and rap battles, but O’Connell & Company found a different way to infuse this dusty, decades-old musical with life: cast it with all women.

. . .a unique, fresh take. . .

“1776,” the 1969 musical by Sherman Edwards and by Peter Stone, is a large ensemble show featuring all of the founding fathers you’ve heard of–and likely some that you haven’t–as they toil over many months to craft a Declaration of Independence that appeases the varied priorities and interests of delegates from all across the 13 colonies; particularly, whether or not to continue the practice of slavery. The show is largely seen through the eyes of John Adams (Pamela Rose Mangus) as he struggles to persuade his colleagues to vote for independence.

If you talked to 100 theatre lovers, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find more than one or two who would name “1776” as their favorite musical; I certainly wouldn’t be one of them. For a musical there’s shockingly little music (it actually holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note of music played or sung – over thirty minutes pass between “The Lees of Old Virginia” and “But Mr. Adams”, the next song in the show). There’s not a great deal of romance, action, or even meaningful conflict between the delegates. Truthfully, it’s more-or-less three hours of voting. But given how dull the source material is, O’Connell & Company manages to squeeze laughter from the audience through well-honed individual character development and comedic timing from this cast of talented women.

All 21 women in this production of “1776” bring a unique, fresh take to their as-written male character. From Edward Rutledge (Emily Yancey), the syrupy southern gentleman from South Carolina, to the Pennsylvania firebrand John Dickinson (Mary Craig), it’s easily evident that each member of this cast took the time to research their character, develop relevant mannerisms, and distinguish themselves from their fellow delegates, avoiding the common pitfall of less-talented “1776” casts: not enough deliniage between characters.

It also helps that, rather than 21 crusty old white dudes who all look and sound the same (as is often the case with lesser-quality productions), this cast of “1776” features a cohort of witty, sharp, diverse women who breathe some life into the show. While they’re all great, Pamela Rose Mangus’ John Adams and Mary Kate O’Connell’s Benjamin Franklin are standouts, both frequently eliciting raucous laughter from the audience and getting lost in the peculiarities of their characters.

While “1776” is one of the less musical musicals out there, this production features talented singers who excel at both the large ensemble numbers like “Sit Down, John”, as well as the slower ballads such as “Till Then.” They’re aided by an economically-sized on-stage orchestra that also sounds quite good.

I had the interesting experience of being in the audience for this production of “1776” exactly 24 hours after seeing “Hamilton” at the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, and while they’re vastly different musicals with little more than their historical time period in common, it’s refreshing to see such bold, artistic, and progressive spins put on the story of America’s founding. And while not exactly an edge-of-your-seat thriller, O’Connell & Company’s production of “1776” is funny, features a talented cast, and maximizes the good aspects of what is otherwise a pretty dry piece of theatre.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“1776” is produced by O’Connell & Company and is playing at the Park School of Buffalo until May 19, 2019. For tickets and more information, click here.