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.

First Look: ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company

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

Long before Hamilton took the musical theatre stage by storm, there was “1776 The Musical.”Winner of the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical, this retelling of how John Adams convinced our Founding Fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence returns to Western New York thanks to O’Connell & Company, and this time it  will have a special spin. This production, opening April 25, will have an all female cast.

“We’re not doing it as women playing men,” says Mary Kate O’Connell, executive director who also portrays Benjamin Franklin in the cast. “We are all actors playing characters. The gender is not as critical as the words.”

O’Connell heard about an all-female concert version of the show, and decided to take the concept one step further and create the production with a full set, original costumes, and a cast of “strong and amazing women,” she says.

The true power of the show is in the script and score and how it depicts  the history lessons we learned long ago. It was no easy feat to convince a disparate group of stakeholders that this was the right time for independence. This mindset  – in some ways – is a metaphor for more contemporary challenges, and hearing these words spoken and sung by women will make an unique impact. O’Connell says “There’s a level of moral civility and respect that you get from a staged version of a historic event. It lets you see the person behind the words. As actors, we try to give these people and their words dimension. I’m not playing a man, I’m portraying the voice of history.”

The cast fully embraces the significance of this work. Pamela Rose Mangus will portray John Adams.  “It’s daunting and humbling to play a man who was so pivotal in the creation of the United States,” she says. “He, along with the rest of the Continental Congress, sacrificed so much to ensure our liberties.” Playing this role, she says, is “a challenge and a damned good role. Plus it gives me the opportunity to come full circle from when I played Abigail Adams in summer stock in 1976.”

O’Connell has assembled a strong production team to match the gravitas of the women on stage, notably Steve Vaughan,  director and Don Jenczka, music director. There will be three members of the production team taking line notes at every performance, too, according to O’Connell.  “We’ve never had that before. This show demands it and deserves it,” she says. These notes will inform the cast and crew about nuances, reactions, and the finer points of staging a show that has more than its usual share of moving parts to it. As O’Connell says, “This show is an opportunity to give women a voice about a critical part of our history.”

“1776 The Musical” is onstage at The Park School in Amherst – where O’Connell & Company is in residence – from April 25 to May 19. Visit www.oconnellandcompany.com for ticket and details.