It’s true that I’m no history buff. I’m not automatically biased toward shows that empower women over men. I’m not particularly politically inclined. I’m no great lover of the musical genre as a whole if we’re being totally honest. I’ve heard the musical 1776 a few times, but never seen it performed, so I don’t come into it with perhaps all the same prejudices and inclinations as perhaps others do. I do however, come in with a critical eye that, for better or worse, I’m often times unable to shut off. The Tabard Theatre Company took a significant risk to do 1776 with an all-female cast, and not unlike our founding father’s introduction of the declaration of independence to congress, the announcement of this concept, caused an audible stir in the local theater community.
The choice to portray the actual events of this pivotal moment in American History was, somewhat unprecedented. It was absolutely presenting the audience with more than just potential obstacles to believing this story. But, that’s really no different from any theatre piece right? If you can tell the story can you win the audience over? In theory, sure. In this case there was really no room for error. So, did this creative team tell the story? The answer is; you’re damn right they did. This group of women, each of them with distinct character, vocal power and humor, and all of them with intense commitment under great skepticism and scrutiny, told the shit out of this story. I will not apologize for my language. They told the shit out of it. Plain and simple.
They show is tightly written, a really nice piece to work with, no doubt. It’s far more topical than you’d think as well taking jabs and the inability for a body of government to facilitate real change, pitting left against right and never shying from the reality of what freedom means and what it costs. It has a nice balance of song and dialogue too, where the songs really do serve a purpose for the most part and they’re enjoyable tunes. It’s also such a dense show that the presence of even one weak link from an acting and a singing standpoint is going to throw a disappointing wrench in the machine. Luckily, this production had none. The harmonies resonated beautifully, the solos packed wicked punches, and the common sound problems of the space seemingly were nowhere to be found. The chemistry amongst this cast was mysteriously palpable. There was a level of comfort, familiarity and support that seemed to permeate the venue and give this show that magical x factor.
There is something quite refreshing and exhilarating about seeing new faces on stage. Even more exciting is when they represent such a diverse cultural demographic, body type and age range. It paints a real picture of today and while the exact opposite of “historically accurate” for this piece, I think the varied representation helped further connect the material to a modern audience somehow, reinvent it for us in a really natural and pleasing way. It’s a damn good day at the theatre when you witness enormous, genuine talent on stage, pioneer your expectations and pretty much blow them out of the water. Even for some of the actresses I have seen (too?) many times before, it felt like these were special, unique, superior performances. These actresses somehow capture the feeling of being in a spontaneous and critical moment, heavy with the potential for monumental change, teetering on opportunity lost forever. There is no explanation for how this intangible was achieved, how the “stars aligned” if you will. You can have a million shows full of talented people, well-directed, with a limitless budget and never achieve a performance with this kind of “feeling.” I can only surmise that the additional challenge of this project somehow bonded and elevated this congress of “broads” in a way that the audience was immediately aware of and ultimately in awe of.
The character choices made were strong, smart and consistent. They didn’t play specific gender or time period, they didn’t get stuck in stereotype, they played the honesty, spirit and passion of the lines. They leaned on each other. They listened to each other. They played the truth. It was presented simply so that the complexity of the words and music could make the impact directly. I didn’t recognize Benjamin Franklin as a man from History so much as a person in a story, in the moment, speaking his convictions, campaigning for the common good, delicately strategizing for success with a grave but inevitable price. Sure the story was familiar and sure I knew how it ended, but there was an uncanny amount of suspense as I became invested early on in how ALL of these characters were going to find resolution.
I found this show to be as authentic and entertaining, as intelligent and well-performed as any I’ve seen in the last few years. I’m shocked in the best way you can be that this worked and worked so well. I feel a sense of pride at the success of this show for our community somehow, though I had nothing to do with it aside from buying a ticket. Perhaps that’s like being a theatre patriot; I didn’t make the sacrifices, but I appreciate getting to enjoy the byproduct of others’ bravery and labor. 5 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a triumphant and dynamic piece that packs a ton of talent in an intimate space and celebrates the very best of our rebellious, entrepreneurial, creative Americaness. 1776 plays through February 16th only at the Theatre on San Pedro Square in Downtown San Jose.