The spirit (and rhythm) of 1776

Franklin mints another one of his snappy little slogans

Franklin mints another one of his snappy little slogans

When bells chime cacophonously at the end of 1776, the ink yet to dry on the Declaration of Independence, the moment cries out for a little triumphalism—the kick-start to a few centuries of glory. Instead, it's a muted scene, with a palpable sense of ambiguity in the air and the acrid smell of foreboding. For all the epic haggling that went into the early days of the United States, it turns out that many of the men involved figured the whole thing might go up in flames.

It's a contradictory show, a musical that features long stretches with no tunes, a sprawling three-hour-plus production that excels at focus, and a serious retelling of history that undercuts any potential pomposity with sharp one-liners and goofy choreography. Faced with a whopping 27-member cast and 10-piece orchestra, one keeps waiting for the moment when the wheels will come off.

As with the grand, chaotic republic itself, that doesn't happen. The primary driver of the action is John Adams (Michael Thomas Holmes), who vigorously annoys the entire Second Continental Congress with his very vocal insistence that America should throw off the British crown. (By Adams's own admission, he was "obnoxious and disliked.") Holmes throws himself into the role, charging about and bellowing in the tones of a morally righteous George Costanza. He fleshes out the role in recurring vignettes with absent wife Abigail (Norah Long), the two sweetly reciting lines from their letters while occupying opposite sides of the stage.

Adams's primary ally in his crusade is the aged Benjamin Franklin (Peter Michael Goetz). Knowing that someone other than the abrasive Adams needs to introduce the independence measure, Franklin recruits the daft Richard Henry Lee (Richard White). This character proceeds to launch into a dance about his distinguished name, with White snapping a whip and heaving himself about with athletic self-satisfaction.

History hasn't paid much mind to those who opposed the notion of breaking away from England. Representing that forsaken club here is Franklin's colleague John Dickinson (Lee Mark Nelson) from the Pennsylvania delegation. Nelson breathes flame during a stinging pro-Brit speech directed in Adams's direction, and soon enough the two are having at each other with their walking sticks.

Cooler heads prevail, and Thomas Jefferson (Tyson Forbes) rolls in to draft a declaration for the budding Congress's approval. While you may remember this part of the broader story from your second-grade history pageant, 1776 peppers in some little-known historical details. For instance, the entire process was almost scuttled because of Jefferson's urgent need for a booty call with wife Martha (Elizabeth Broadhurst). Fortunately, the assignation was duly arranged.

1776 debuted on Broadway in 1969, and came out as a film in 1972. (A 1997 New York revival received a handful of Tony nominations and favorable notices). One imagines composer and lyricist Sherman Edwards and book writer Peter Stone were not entirely unaware of the political tumult of their moment. (Director John Miller-Stephany surely noticed the difficulties of King George in our own day.) And while the show deals with the internal workings of our independence, this production makes near-perfect use of some individual performances. Brian Skellenger's delivery of a sad young soldier's lament at the end of Act One, and Bradley Greenwald's riotous number about the slave trade in Act Two stand on their own, without turning into a broader Joseph Ellis lecture.

The result is a ridiculously vibrant, intellectually satisfying show. Rather than pimping the declaration as a foundation for unqualified national greatness, 1776 shows the practical and moral compromises that had to be made in order for Jefferson's document to get signed. And then, having made common cause, the sundry delegates stare into the abyss of possible military defeat and the lousy fate that would follow. Before the lights go down, the actors arrayed look as though their characters have discovered courage in themselves. Human societies, after all, have been famously difficult to organize, even if this assemblage did better than most.