Filichia Features: 1776: Stand Up, Girls!

Filichia Features: 1776: Stand Up, Girls!

Hearing “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” sung by young women is thrilling.

It’s different, to be sure. Sherman Edwards’ marvelous sextet for the conservatives who rail against American independence – in 1776, of course – has been traditionally sung by a half-dozen men. However, in Kenosha, Wisconsin at Bradford High School, director Cheri Steinkellner has opted to do 1776 with an almost-all-female cast. Thus, lilting sopranos raise their voices high.

As I previously wrote, Steinkellner felt that if a teenaged boy in a high school production of 1776 could be believable as 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin, why couldn’t a girl play John Dickinson, the six-foot thorn in John Adams’ side?

Savannah Kroeger took on the bull role by the horns – especially when she steadfastly stated why the colonies shouldn’t break from England. Although we’re never on her side, when Kroeger argued that “we have no army, no navy, no ammunition, no treasury, no friends,” an audience had to reluctantly agree.

Steinkellner also felt a young black man could play Thomas Jefferson and cast African-American Donovan Harris. Although he has coal-black hair, Franklin still referred to him as “red-headed,” for Steinkellner adhered to the MTI rules and didn’t change a word.

There was added power when Jefferson vehemently argued against slavery. We wondered what Harris thought when reminded of a practice that was obviously anathema to him. On a (literally) softer note, Harris made the lyric “lovely bride” in “But, Mr. Adams” profit from the richness of his black voice. When Adams wanted to shame the wife-deprived Jefferson into writing the Declaration by sneering “Are you a patriot or a lover?” Harris enjoyed lustily proclaiming “Lover!” as much as the audience did in hearing it.

When Jefferson said he was returning to his wife, the students cackled when Franklin crowed “Give her a good one for me!” Kids love ribaldry, so they responded when the golden-voiced Emily Burhani made clear Martha Jefferson’s sexual metaphor in “He Plays the Violin.”

What they also had was zero tolerance for bullying. When Dickinson intimidated pusillanimous James Wilson, they let out an indignant “Oh!” When the excellent Sabrina Rodriguez had Thomas McKean, a delegate intent on getting his way, pick up his rifle, point to his exiting adversary and say “This’ll break the tie,” she didn’t get a single laugh – which, alas, this line usually does. That the students weren’t amused by gunplay spoke well of them.

Other boys included Colin Swanson’s wise and wonderful Franklin; Federico Santana’s impressive Caesar Rodney, the most heroic delegate; Noah Olsen’s Adams, the mover-and-shaker of American independence. Adams is the straw that stirs the drink, and Olsen gave, shall-we-say, a stirring performance?

If you go this non-gender-and-non-traditional casting route, have your costume designer do what Amanda Hurd did: period clothes from the neck down but a modern look from the neck up.

Pray that you find a Secretary Charles Thomson with as strong a speaking voice as Chloe Mueller’s. Thomson must not only read General Washington’s dispiriting dispatches but also announce each vote on independence. Mueller was wondrous in the final round when reporting the 13 “Yeas!” increasing her exhilaration with each additional one. Not many lads on campus could have outshouted her.

Similarly, few could have put more “manpower” into gavel-wielding as Fiona Dyer’s John Hancock. Dyer also explained congressional rules and procedures so clearly that an audience always knew what was happening each step of the way.

Anyone who plays Edward Rutledge, the biggest slavery advocate, will be judged by the masterful aria “Molasses to Rum,” in which he dramatically accuses the northern states of also profiting from the practice. Natalie Lall sang it extraordinarily well, but earlier she’d had a moment when she revealed that her passion wouldn’t just be limited to the song.

It involved 1776 ‘s three-columned scoreboard on which the colonies are listed on moveable tiles. At show’s start, every tile rests in the center column, but each will move to either the left when a colony votes “Yea” for independence or to the right when a colony instead votes “Nay.” As long as the independence advocates have a majority, the issue is open for discussion; when the opposition has it, it can table it.

After Rodney’s terminal illness causes him to leave, Rutledge realizes that his royalists are no longer in the minority. Lall rushed over to the tally board and with her walking stick pushed the Delaware tile with such force to the “Nay” column that it bounced back to the center.

Samuel Chase says early on that “Maryland would welcome independence if it were given but is highly skeptical that it can be taken.” Later Adams directly challenges “If you thought we could beat the Redcoats, would Maryland say yea?” Autumn Voyles said “Well, I suppose” with such yearning – reminding us that a half-hour earlier, Chase had established that he indeed wanted independence. (And after he saw those sharpshooters, he would be.)

Equally impressive was Sofia Roldan’s Wilson. Slavishly following Dickinson in rejecting independence was easy even as late as June 29th, when six colonies (including his own Pennsylvania) were all Nays. But as five colonies fell into line, Roldan excelled at looking increasingly nervous as she saw the vote would come down to her.

Doing a high-school1776 does more than make students keenly aware that they shouldn’t take liberty for granted. When Adams loses patience with those who won’t break from England, Franklin rebuts “These men, no matter how much we disagree with them, are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about.” In other words, kids, even your enemies deserve dignity, so give it to them. Start now and continue for your entire lifetime.

No musical offers as many heroes as 1776’s two dozen. Over the decades, many men and boys have got into these characters’ skins and have learned what heroism is. How thrilling to see the girls in Kenosha break through what could be called “the glass curtain.” Keep breaking it, girls.

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You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com. His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.