1776 -- At the Carter Barron Amphitheater: Friday and Saturday, performances at 6 and 9:30; Sunday at 8:30.

The lively, witty and poignant musical "1776" is one of the very few American Bicentennial effusions that will live to the Tricentennial. The road company now playing at the Carter Barron is good enough that it held the opening-night audience in their seats through a rainstorm.

As unlikely and sweeping a success as the revolution it celebrates, "1776" tells a truer story than the history books. The show itself is the best evidence that the American experiment worked and continues to work, sloppy and imperfect though it may be. Imagine leering on the Bolshoi stage like Howard Da Silva's Ben Franklin. Or a Peking player showing Chairman Mao unable to work on the little red book because his mind is in his wife's bedchamber, which is why Michael Scott's Tom Jefferson dawdles over the Declaration of Independence.

The idea sounds vulgar but the execution isn't, and portraying the men of the Second Continental Congress as all too human makes all the more remarkable what they accomplished after months of irresolution, bickering and horse-trading.

Almost as remarkable is the accomplishment of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone in creating a musical from such unlikely material while doing very violence to the facts. Song and dance about the Second Continental Congress? Yes. Funny and sad, noble and nutty, solemn and silly, variegated as the world's oldest constitutional nation, which it is always a surprise to remember that the United States is.

The Carter Barron production also showed itself to be timeless as well as nearly waterproof. Da Silva, who created Franklin in the original Broadway show, still adheres to the standard he set. Don Perkins, who has played John Adams in a dozen different productions, betrays no sign of having done the demanding role nearly 1,776 times. Scott is tall Tom to the life, showing his force and vigor while suggesting his depth and breadth with tautly controlled understatement. T. J. Boyle's antic and emptyheaded Richard Henry Lee would be perfect if he had more wind. Kristina Karlin's Abigail Adams gives relief to her zealot-husband's role and reminds us of The People in whose name the Congress was called.

But the performance that sticks in the mind is that of Lance Hewett as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. Rutledge is the least sympathetic character in the story, the gadfly in the ointment who held up the Declaration until the noble and hypocritical slavery passage was stricken. He mocks the high-minded but slaveholding Jefferson and roasts the New Englanders whose prosperity is fueled by the triangular trade of molasses, rum and slaves. In the end, although he will not sign the Declaration he will serve the nation it creates. Historically and dramatically the role is an uncomfortable one, and Hewett makes it resonate with the irony of a free nation built largely on slavery and the tragedy to which it will lead fourscore and seven years later.

It is the unflinching and clear-eyed treatment of the truths that are less self-evident that gives "1776" its power, and, somehow, its humor. Without once stopping to flag-waving it sends us home with a renewed appreciation that a nation that can laugh at its heroes is no bad place to live.