Watertown's New Rep revisits historical musical '1776' with a multiracial, mixed-gender cast.

If you were shut out of tickets for “Hamilton,” Watertown's New Repertory Theatre is offering another chance to marvel at the amazing feat of nation-making by our forefathers (and mothers) with its revival of “1776,” the musical about the painful birth of the Declaration of Independence.

The unlikely time, place and characters on stage is the meeting of the Second Continental Congress in steamy Philadelphia, May to July 1776. Although the war between the colonists and Great Britain was well underway, the representatives were locked in conflicting arguments about their purpose, passing their days in fruitless discussions about what was to be done. Gadfly John Adams of Massachusetts was described as “obnoxious and disliked,” for trying to get a resolution of independence passed, aided by the wry, pragmatic Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia. They were opposed by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, a Loyalist to England and the delegates from the Southern states, defending the institution of slavery.

While the audience is well aware of the outcome, it’s to the credit of Peter Stone (book) and Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics), and the staging by Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards, co-directors of the New Rep production, that suspense builds (over three hours stage time). We watch the weeks go by with no decision made before July 3, when the Declaration of Independence was finally adopted.

The show beat out “Hair” for the 1969 Tony award for best musical and ran for more than three years on Broadway. The chief difference between the 1969 premiere, portrayed by a large group of white men, and the current revival at New Rep, is the multiracial, mixed-gender cast.

Given the changing racial complexion of our nation in the 21st century, and the notions about sexual identities, New Rep has chosen both men and women as the historically white Founding Fathers, with no restrictions on the color of their skins. Thus, the fine female Newton actor Bobbie Steinbach portrays the wily Ben Franklin, opposed by a sardonic Aimee Doherty, the Waltham actress who is usually cast as a romantic leading lady, in the role of Dickinson.

The young Dan Prior plays Martha, Jefferson’s bride. Male African-American actor KP Powell portrays Jefferson, the reluctant young Virginian who has to be talked into composing the masterpiece that stands as the Declaration of Independence. White actor Benjamin Evett, well known for his leading roles at American Repertory Theater and New Rep, makes Adams into an impatient firebrand, so sure of the righteousness of the revolution that he refuses to be forced into collaboration until he has no other choice.

Clearly chosen for the fine caliber of their voices, and a remarkable chiming of the ensemble in the full cast numbers, the 23 actors more than do justice to Sherman’s score. Under the musical direction of Todd C. Gordon (on the piano for the six-piece orchestra and conductor), the opening number, “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down,” gets “1776” off to a rousing start. The first act has some squirmy moments in dry passages of dialogue, familiar in the manner of doing (or not doing) the business of our contemporary Congress. However, these are followed by a clutch of sprightly songs: “The Lees of Virginia,” led by Pier Lamia Porter as Richard Lee, and Doherty’s “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” that has her warbling about moving “To the Right, Never to the Left.” The number is choreographed into an amusing minuet by Kelli Edwards.

Solos that stop the show are delivered by the foot soldier of the Continental Army, Steven Martin, in the poignant “Mama Look Sharp,” and the fiery indictment of the North’s complicity in the slave trade, “Molasses to Rum,” punched out by Shannon Lee Jones as Rutledge, representative from South Carolina.

Overall, the theme of “1776,” mirrors the central lesson of “Hamilton,” that our nation was not founded by “demi gods. We’re men - no more, no less - trying to get a nation started” as Franklin declares near the final curtain. Even with mistakes made to get the unanimous vote to save the revolution (deleting Jefferson’s passage about the rights of all Americans, including slaves), the United States still stands and hopefully will continue along the path forged by the signers of our Declaration of Independence.