When things get serious in the quirky musical

1776

- now in a spirited Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production that forces you to overlook the show's silly buffoonery - the tension is high and the audience hooked.

The fight in Independence Hall over whether all 13 colonies will adopt a Declaration of Independence, thereby engaging in treason against the English crown, is paraphrased in the script. But it feels entirely real. And as that intellectual battle heats up, the production finds its firm footing. The second half of 1776 - and particularly this 1776 - is what makes the show worth the effort.

In the hands of the festival's associate artistic director, Dennis Razze, that effort leads to a striking theatricality - meticulously timed give-and-take among the members of the Continental Congress, and a will-they-or-won't-they anxiety that's palpable. This, in spite of the fact that 1776 is a spoiler from its start; we all know the outcome from the moment John Adams (a crustily charming portrayal by Richard B. Watson) enters Independence Hall in a fit of shrill revolutionary carping.

I hadn't seen 1776 since its production at a tent theater on Independence Mall during the nation's Bicentennial, 33 years ago, and I couldn't remember anything of Sherman Edwards' music and lyrics or Peter Stone's script. Edwards' songs are workable, if not sizzling. The best of them come when two Pennsylvania delegates (Ezra Barnes and David Jack) lead a vow to oppose revolution, and when the show's only two women (excellent performances by Edwardyne Cowan and Katie Wexler) appear to summon or celebrate their husbands, Adams and the stressed-out Thomas Jefferson (Spencer Plachy). As the show gets serious, an austere song about slavery (strikingly delivered by Gary Lindemann) defines the issue that becomes the selling point - really, the sell-out - for these men.

The show's first half imports a clownishness that makes Ben Franklin (the gifted Richard Pruitt) seem like a lightweight and Virginia's Richard Henry Lee (a googly-eyed Christopher Vettel) altogether crackers. Yet the ha-ha history lesson admittedly does introduce a score of men in an unforced way.

Moving the 20 men around a stage isn't easy, but in Razze's direction, on Will Neuert's woodsy turntable set, it's a snap. Sam Fleming's elegant and rich colonial costumes add to the high production quality. And the sound of so many male voices in tuneful harmony is a moving contrast to the discord in Independence Hall that eventually led to our freedom.

1776

Through July 5 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave, Center Valley. Tickets: $25-$49. Information: 610-282-9455 or www.pashakespeare.org.

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Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.