Thursday, December 6, 2018


Two companies cast fresh eyes on historical figures with strong ties to Boston this month. New Repertory Theatre gives 1776 the “Hamilton” treatment (through Dec. 30th) and Lyric Stage Company (in association with The Front Porch Arts Collective) remembers the extraordinary African-American tenor, Roland Hayes, with BREATH & IMAGINATION (through Dec. 23rd).

New Rep’s daring re-imagining of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 puts all of us on stage, in all our diversity, to tell the story this time out. Lin-Manuel Miranda created a theatrical revolution with his commitment to a theater which reflects society and, as John Adams famously says in 1776, “We’ve crossed the Rubicon.” There’s no going back. HAMILTON re-sets the bar. Hallelujah!

Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards beef up the choreography and tweak the focus, but otherwise, it’s the 1776 you know. Perhaps their biggest hurtle is the music. Because women are singing some of the male roles (and visa versa in one case), music director Todd C. Gordon had to rework the score, changing keys to accommodate the higher voices. He did. It works brilliantly and as a result of the new casting, you sit up and take notice!

The most conventional role (as in “traditional” casting) is Benjamin Evett’s as Adams and he gives a passionate performancebut swirling all around him is the brave new world reinterpreting the old white world of our founding fathers. You might not think it would work but it does and there’s resonance to be had that the old, pale version didn’t have. When Thomas Jefferson is played by an African-American actor, (a serene KP Powell as the quiet, cerebral author of the Declaration), you’re not about to forget that Jefferson kept slaves and fathered children with at least one slave. (The “Declaration Descendants” project at has found twenty-nine living multi-racial descendants of the signers!)

The strange alchemy at work is that, at the same time, you forget the casting altogether and are swept up in the action of the musical. Bobbie Steinbach may be portraying Ben Franklin, but it’s still the cantankerous Ben Franklin out there. Shannon Lee Jones is delivering the “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” showstopper but Rutledge still takes your breath away with his indictment of the tall ships “out of Boston” (knowingly transporting slaves from the West Indies to the South). The entire ensemble is flawless, with Dan Prior a shimmering Martha Jefferson (the show’s most courageous role), with Rachel Belleman hilarious as the hard drinking R.I. delegate and Liliane Klein wonderfully acerbic as the Scotsman from Delaware.

 “Momma Look Sharp” (sung from the perspective of a dead soldier on the Lexington Green) is always devastating and Steven Martin’s gorgeous elegy is exceptionally sweet and powerful. Carolyn Saxon’s cheeky Abigail Adams contributes spice as well as salt peter to the revolution. You’ll relish Cheryl Singleton as John Hancock, Aimee Doherty as the conservative Pennsylvania holdout, Pier Lamia Porter as the preposterous Henry Lee (of the Virginia Lees), Luis Negron as the steady congressional secretary, Gary Ng as the delegate who saves the vote, and more, many more. Don’t miss out.

I recall a reenactment one July Fourth at the Old State House downtown wherein the Declaration of Independence was solemnly read aloud, followed by Roland Hayes singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It must have been well over forty years ago, yet it made an indelible impression on me. How sad it is that not many Bostonians remember the ground breaking tenor who lived in Brookline for the last fifty years of his life. Daniel Beaty’s BREATH & IMAGINATION is making some restitution (although the script only covers the early part of Hayes’ remarkable ninety year lifespan).

Davron S. Monroe gives a tour de force as the pioneering African-American singer in director Maurice Emmanuel Parent’s evocative production at the Lyric. The Beaty script focuses in large part on Hayes’ relationship with his mother: Yewande Odetoyinbo turns in a stellar performance as the tenacious woman who won’t give up easily on her dream to have a preacher for a son. Beaty takes liberties with timelines and omissions but manages to convey the hardships Hayes endured on his way to becoming one of the preeminent interpreters of both operatic and spiritual music in America.

In addition to Monroe and Odetoyinbo, both of whom are impressive vocalists, BREATH & IMAGINATION features Doug Gerber as Hayes’ kindly first voice teacher (who plays a life-changing recording of Enrico Caruso for the young Hayes) and Nile Scott Hawver who plays everyone else (including a “non-traditional” role like the ones in 1776). Music director Asher Denburg accompanies the singers on piano, no small accomplishment. His is quite a spirited performance, as well.

Hayes’ ties to Boston began in 1917 when he rented Symphony Hall and produced his own sold out concert. Six years later after major success in Europe, he made his “official,” invited debut with the BSO. He gave his last concert at the age of eighty-five at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. Of course, his voice is the most important element in BREATH & IMAGINATION so we hear Monroe singing Scarlatti, Faure, Schubert and Donizetti as well as famous spirituals like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.”

Monroe triumphs in Nemorino’s gorgeous aria from L’ELISIR D’AMORE, “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” when a tell-tale tear reveals true love. Every operatic tenor worth his salt covers the aria. Add Monroe’s name to that list. Kudos to the Lyric and Front Porch for reminding us of the treasure that was Boston’s for so many years.