THE LITTLE THEATRE OF ALEXANDRIA IS 63 YEARS OLD. A THEATER REVIEW IN THE AUG. 12 WEEKLY GAVE AN INCORRECT AGE. (PUBLISHED 08/19/99)

Little Theatre of Alexandria never seems to tire of "1776," but with this summer's production of the Broadway musical--the fourth time in the troupe's 30-year-history--it's easy to see why.

For one thing, it's simply a lively and clever show.

The script, by Peter Stone, tackles a subject--the Declaration of Independence--that may seem odd for song-and-dance routines. It's hard to imagine Ben Franklin and his cohorts crooning away and tripping the light fantastic. But it works--well enough for the show to win the 1969 Tony award for best musical.

The music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, a pop composer who conceived of the show, are closely tied to character and situation. Of course, that doesn't give an audience much to hum about when it leaves the theater, because the songs sound rather silly out of context. The catchiest tune in the show, "For God's Sake, John, Sit Down"--sung by a Congress that's sick of John Adams prattling on about independence from Britain--would sound silly belted out in the shower.

Instead, the show gets its power from the colorful and all-too-human characterizations of the founding fathers, who so often appear as godlike statesmen in other depictions.

For the Alexandria production, the Little Theatre brought in the team of Christopher Dykton (director) and Gary C. Mead (musical director), who contrived the recent bright performance of "Damn Yankees" for the Arlington Players and who engineered Arlington's brilliant staging of "On the Town" two seasons ago.

Dykton has assembled a fine cast and draws a clear picture of each of the show's colonial characters.

Jimmy Payne, whose longtime local entertainment credentials include his classic-rock band Chesapeake, is an intense and hard-driving John Adams. Payne's Adams doggedly battles a lethargic Continental Congress and strong-arms a moody Thomas Jefferson--played with proper reluctance by Mark Lyons--into drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Jim Carmalt, who performed in his debut with the troupe in 1975 in "1776," is absolutely formidable as John Dickinson, the Pennsylvania delegate who fought drastically to keep the Congress from breaking with the mother country. Rather than show Dickinson to be simply a villain, Carmalt's energy makes it clear why Dickinson opposed independence so passionately.

Always a crowd-pleaser, the witty and irreverent Benjamin Franklin is given a wonderfully animated portrayal by Donald Neal.

Last Thursday's near-capacity audience got a charge out of John Day's comic performance as Richard Henry Lee, judging from the laughs and applause, even though Day had trouble with the southern accent that is a crucial part of the Virginian's character.

Show-stopping musical performances include Robert Hall Jr.'s extremely intense "Molasses to Rum," in which his character (Edward Rutledge of South Carolina) demands that Jefferson delete a provision to free slaves from the Declaration of Independence.

A heartfelt ballad by Christopher Smith, "Momma Look Sharp," sung by a military courier, tells of the violence of the battlefield. And Carmel Ferrer, as Abigail Adams, shares a fine love song with Payne, in "Till Then."

Besides arranging the fine vocal performances, Mead conducts from the keyboard a strong orchestra that plays from a backstage area, never overwhelming the singing.

Beyond the show itself, Alexandria is a great place to see "1776." This production is a "command performance," according to theater officials, requested by Alexandria officials to celebrate the city's 250th anniversary.

It's a hoot to see a lively reenactment of the birth of the nation in a city that was a thriving center of commerce at the time and whose streets were haunted by the likes of Washington, Jefferson and other conspirators against the crown.

And last Thursday night after the play, you could look up the Potomac River and see a light from the Capitol, showing Congress to be in session and signifying that what those revolutionaries started more than 200 years ago is still going on, at least in some fashion.

"1776" continues at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 21, at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria. Tickets are $16 Fridays and Saturdays; and $13 other days. Call 703-683-0496 for reservations.

CAPTION: John Adams (Jimmy Payne, far left) goads Thomas Jefferson (Mark Lyons) into writing the Declaration of Independence, egged on by founding fathers (left to right) Robert Livingston (Ron Squeri), Roger Sherman (Christopher G. Riggs) and Benjamin Franklin (Donald Neal), in Little Theatre of Alexandria's "1776."