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Theatre in Review: Liberty: A Monumental New Musical (42 West)

Mark Aldrich, Ryan Duncan, Bradon Andrus, Tina Stafford. Photo: Russ Rowland

No matter what Donald Trump says, musical theatre writers love immigrants. And why not? The story of the great wave of Europeans who came to America before, say, 1920 is inherently stirring, filled with the stuff that makes great theatre. (It has yielded one masterpiece in Ragtime.) It's such a rich subject that it can be attacked from many different angles. Yet, as such also-ran efforts as Miss Liberty, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, and Rags have shown, it can prove strangely intractable. Now comes Liberty, which, despite its monumental subtitle, is a vest-pocket musical about a very special immigrant: the copper lady in New York harbor known as the Statue of Liberty.

After an introductory number, we are presented, via a bit of shadow play, with the silhouette of a sculptor putting the finishing touches on a new statue. He is, of course, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of Lady Liberty -- but immediately, something is off: his "statue" is a little girl standing on a pedestal. When he worries that he can't travel with her, she says, "You've already found my place for me, Papa. It sounds perfect." Thus, we are introduced to Liberty's central conceit, that Liberty (as the character is known) is both an enormous piece of metalwork and a jeune fille who speaks perfect English and engages in dialogues with the rest of the cast about US immigration policy.

If you find that last sentence a little confusing, don't look at me; take it up with Dana Leslie Goldstein, Liberty's librettist. That it proves awkward is not surprising. What action Liberty has involves raising the money for a pedestal, a project that involved enormous effort and a couple of political setbacks. As presented here, however, it would appear that the statue was dropped off, in care of an unsuspecting American public, somewhere in lower Manhattan, left to languish until a pair of saviors appeared. The first of these would be Emma Lazarus, who wrote the famous poem that enshrined the statue in the national consciousness. The other would be Joseph Pulitzer, last seen squeezing every last penny out of the title characters in Newsies and here rehabilitated into a man of the people who galvanizes the public into paying for the now-famous installation on Liberty Island.

Aside from this central situation, which isn't treated especially dramatically, the rest of the show consists of little vignettes featuring Liberty interacting with various immigrants -- Russians, Italians, and Irish; determined to cover all the bases, Goldstein includes James Goodleaf, a Native American, who has left his upstate reservation to find employment as an ironworker, and Samuel Ferguson, who is black and therefore gets to sing about slavery. The villainous nativist contingent -- who would prefer it if all these foreigners were sent packing -- consists of Francis A. Walker and Regina Schuyler. In real life, the former was an economist and statistician who, in 1896, wrote a long article in The Atlantic, worrying that unchecked immigration would depress the salaries of American workers; Schuyler, who seems a bit more obscure, is presented as a New York society figure and descendant of Alexander Hamilton. Upon learning that Liberty traveled to America in her ship's cargo hold, she shrieks, "Step away, Francis! She's not just an immigrant! She travels steerage." (Somebody should tell Lin-Manuel Miranda about her.)

Most of this brief, 80-minute-long entertainment is designed to spoon-feed a young audience the idea that immigrants are good and those opposed to them are bad. That's fine with me -- especially these days -- but the idea of a girl statue offering little homilies ("Think how much easier it would've been when you first got here, if you'd been able to look toward me, and remember why you made the journey.") gets old pretty fast, and the show's creators have little more to offer in the way of drama. The songs -- music by Jon Goldstein -- favor an '80s-'90s middle-of-the-road pop sound that isn't too appropriate given the subject matter and isn't terribly compelling on its own terms.

Given that didactic book and poky score, Evan Pappas' direction can't work up much excitement. Among the cast members, I liked Emma Rosenthal's no-nonsense Emma Lazarus; Brandon Andrus' oily, self-satisfied Walker; and Tina Stafford, who is forever popping in and out of costumes as both Regina Schuyler and Olga Moscowitz, late of Russia and currently hawking knishes from a pushcart. No set designer is credited; there is merely a stage deck backed by a very wide video screen onto which Colin Doyle projects, among other things, images of immigrants, New York Harbor, and Castle Garden, the building through which immigrants entered the US. The screen's low resolution results in highly pixelated images that don't feel appropriate for a period show; the actors standing in front of it are subjected to an irritating moiré effect. Jamie Roderick's rather amorphous lighting could use more precision and detail. Debbi Hobson's costumes are perfectly okay.

Liberty ends on a determined note of uplift, with a number, "Huddled Masses," that includes bits of Lazarus' poem; it's possible that it might suffice as a starter civics lesson for very young audiences. But, once again, this great subject has managed to elude yet another creative team. Personally, I'd wait for a revival of Ragtime, and take the kids. -- David Barbour

(8 July 2016)

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