Whenever Charles Busch or John Epperson puts on a dress, wig and uncomfortable shoes, you can bet they are making a statement. They possess an attitude — a very big attitude — toward the female character they’re portraying.
Utterly lacking is any point of view when the female, transgender or nonbinary actors put on men’s clothes in the new revival of “1776,” which opened Thursday at Roundabout’s American Airline Theatre.
Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus direct this 1969 musical about the American Revolution, and there is one moment right at the top of the show when a nifty bit of footwear-changing (costumes by Emilio Sosa) takes us back more than a couple of centuries with a mere roll of the stockings. It’s fun. Drag is supposed to be fun, not to mention outrageous, as anyone who has watched “RuPaul’s Drag Race” knows. It’s also a send-up of sexual conventions.
There are a couple of problems with giving “1776” the male-drag treatment. First off, at its core the show is terrible. Peter Stone wrote possibly the dullest, longest book scenes ever written for a musical. When those original rebels from the colonies hold roll calls or take votes, you want the British to storm Philadelphia immediately. The only thing more stultifying than these book scenes are the music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. (Who he?) As soon as the actors starts singing in “1776,” you wait impatiently for them to go back to the somewhat less wearisome book.
There is one good thing baked into Stone’s book: For the most part, the Founding Fathers were privileged, arrogant and full of themselves. Curiously, this revival never emphasizes or even tweaks all their male flaws. Here, not having any male actors on stage does emphasize that there were no Founding Mothers. The banishment of men is intriguing for about two minutes of stage time.
“The Valley of the Dolls” is a terrible novel and movie. But cast with men in drag it could be a hoot on stage. (Frankly, “Dolls” has a lot more narrative drive than “1776.”) An all-male cast would probably also enliven Clare Boothe Luce’s “The Women,” come to think of it. Certainly, that kind of nontraditional casting would provide for an irreverent take on the material.
This “1776” is not irreverent or daring in any way. It is a colossal dirge. John Clancy’s orchestrations turn every number in the second act into a bombastic anthem.
Lola Pashalinski, a founding member of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, knew how putting on a pair of pants and scratching her crotch could magnify a male character’s superiority complex. Only a few performances in this “1776” revival possess that anarchic flair. Patrena Murray’s pragmatic Ben Franklin, Liz Mikel’s commanding John Hancock, and Shawna Hamic’s demented Richard Henry Lee provide brief moments of inspired satire.
John Adams may be the biggest bore ever to be the lead character in an American musical stage. He and others keep telling us what an insufferable pedant he is. Here, Crystal Lucas-Perry plays him as straight and humorless as any male actor ever has. Beyond the nontraditional casting, there’s nothing very revolutionary about this lackluster “1776.”