By Shelley A. Sackett
Digging deep into the history of the United States reveals a largely unrecognized fact: Jews played a role in the events that launched the American Revolution. Like their fellow early settlers, they were divided in their loyalties, but there is no denying they had skin in the game.
The most famous revolutionary Jew was Polish-born Haym Salomon, a successful foreign securities dealer who helped finance the American cause. Francis Salvador was the first Jew elected to public office in the colonies. He was also the first Jew killed in the American Revolutionary War, fighting in 1776 on the South Carolina frontier. Abigail Minis was a Savannah, Ga., businesswoman and landowner who helped supply provisions for the revolutionary forces.
Don’t hold your breath, however, waiting for these unsung Jewish patriots to appear in The New Rep Theatre’s production of the 1969 Broadway hit, “1776.” The Tony-award-winning musical now onstage in Watertown focuses exclusively on the tumultuous political machinations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Our Jewish revolutionaries are not even a footnote.
Nonetheless, co-directors Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards (the same team that breathed new life into the thread-worn “Fiddler on the Roof”) manage to shake things up by launching the play into the 21st century and casting it as gender and race neutral. Women play men, men play women, and the racial diversity on stage rivals that of “Hamilton.”
The strategy is, for the most part, clever and effective. The always-outstanding Bobbie Steinbach is dazzling as Ben Franklin. She steals every scene she is in (which is most of them) with her impeccable timing and gestures. It also doesn’t hurt that her character’s lines are the script’s best crafted.
The three-hour show takes place during a long, steamy Philadelphia summer. The Second Continental Congress, an unruly, exhausted and petulant group of men representing the original 13 colonies, meets day after day in a stifling room ‒ the windows can’t be opened or the chamber would fill with flies. Front and center on their agenda is deciding whether to declare national independence and unite formally in rebellion against British rule or remain separate sovereign colonies.
John Adams of Massachusetts is desperate to persuade this ill-tempered and motley crew that time is running out. If Congress doesn’t act now as a united front to throw off Great Britain’s tyranny, he fears General George Washington’s ragtag and outnumbered army will suffer crushing and lethal defeat.
The stumbling block is that Adams (in a spot on performance by Benjamin Evett) is, even by his own admission, obnoxious and disliked. Few take him or his ideas seriously. As the days pass, the room temperature and tempers flare, threatening to derail Adams’ dream. “It’s a revolution. We’re going to have to offend someone!” he bellows as yet another delegate proposes a self-serving amendment.
The script, based on the book by Peter Stone, is at times a starchy history lesson, unwavering in its emphasis on facts and chronology. The lackluster score and competent but uninspired choreography and lighting do not lighten the load. Although the audience leaves chock-full of knowledge, the lingering aftertaste is of a snack chosen for nutritional value rather than flavor.
White men comprised the real Second Congress. In this modern version, half the delegates are women, dressed as ‒ and playing the roles of ‒ men. Although initially distracting, the novelty soon wears off and everyone becomes a co-equal delegate. Suddenly, what really matters are the words they speak, not how they look or sound.
The directors succeed in creating a truly representative body, one that is color blind and gender neutral, united by the simple commonality of humanness. Basking in that possibility, even if it is only make believe, is well worth the price of admission.
Through Dec. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $22 (student) to $72. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.