By Marcina Zaccaria
Attending 54 Sings 1776 was a joyous way to compliment fireworks from the 4th of July.
The show got off to a great start with Devin Ilaw (Miss Saigon) as John Adams proclaiming the need for Congress. Performing to a sold-out crowd at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, the cast appeared from the sides of the cabaret and stage center. To look at the Founding Fathers, on this spectacular holiday, not only as argumentative, but also as lofty dreamers, provided a moment to consider justice and freedom. Independence never sounded so appealing. “Sit Down, John” had terrific harmonies, and “He Plays the Violin” was fanciful and buoyant.
Though it’s easy to get dragged down with a required sense of patriotism on the 4th of July, the characters in 1776 make us re-think our ideals, and our sense of humanity. The players struggled so mightily with the debates leading up to the Declaration of Independence. The musical originally opened on Broadway in 1969. In 2018 at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, multi-cultural casting seemed to update this extraordinary show. It’s a largely male cast, with a standout performance from Dorcas Leung (Hamilton, National Tour) as Abigail Adams. As a departure from the boisterous discussions, John confesses his fears, while Abigail dutifully responds.
Rounding out the cast is Charlotte Maltby (The Sound of Music National Tour) as Edward Rutledge, Allison Bailey (Wicked National Tour) as Martha Jefferson, Hassan Nazari-Robati (Beauty and the Beast National Tour) as Benjamin Franklin, Sandra Okuboyejo (Ragtime) as The Courier, Noah Plomgren (Finding Neverland National Tour) as Thomas Jefferson, James Seol (KPOP) as Richard Henry Lee, and Darius Wright (Pretty Woman, A Bronx Tale) as John Dickinson. In the ensemble, Adam Flynn Emery (Camille Claudele), Jordan Jacobs (CityRep’s Peter and the Starcatcher), and Chris Murphy (54 Sings Heathers).
Though plagued by a slight sound flaw in the beginning of the performance, the performers, amplified largely by standing microphones, found their inspiration in each song. The presentation remained so faithful to the actual musical, with dialogue and song after memorable song. A standout moment included the performance of Mama Look Sharp. A true spiritual, the song spoke to struggle and the need for inner strength. It was a credible, deeply intuitive performance, with perfect phrasing. Furthermore, the overall orchestration, with woodwinds, piano, violin and live drums (performed by Justin Vance, Tom Kmiccik, Jon Weber, and Russ Nyberg) brought forth the revolutionary spirit.
Molasses to Rum, another song not traditionally sung by a female, was wickedly characterized. Addressing the way citizens in the North were awkwardly denying the reality of the slave trade, the vocalist pinpointed human failings in the larger American system. “The Egg” was a more whimsical interpretation, providing levity in an otherwise ponderous musical landscape.
Devin Ilaw ended the evening, alone on the stage, with a plea. “Is Anybody There?” was the subtle reminder that behind all the firm debates and overturned votes, real people created the documents that made this country independent. The bookend structure was particularly potent. The hollowness of the moment coupled with the rousing need to be heard, made 54 Sings 1776 a great cabaret pick for a triumphant Summer holiday.
Photos: Michael Hull
54 Sings 1776 was performed on July 3 and 4 at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below located at 254 West 54th Street in NYC.