By Beatrice Williams-Rude
A perfectly timed, unfortunately relevant and utterly thrilling musical, titled Liberty, opened July 4.
This is an audience show and there was wild enthusiasm at the July 1 matinee.
Liberty is not to be confused with Miss Liberty (1949) a work by Robert Sherwood and Irving Berlin, which deals with the same subject matter.
Liberty is history in a nutshell, but history none the less. The historic personages depicted were indeed players in the events leading to the funding and installation of the Statue of Liberty as well as its creation by the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (Ryan Duncan), with whom the musical begins.
The time is 1884 and it’s largely set in the docking area where newcomers are screened prior to being admitted to the US. It deals with the plight of immigrants and would-be immigrants, particularly from Southern and Eastern Europe but also from Ireland. It encompasses Native Americans, and African Americans who were brought here as slaves. Below is an actual quote from Francis A. Walker (played by Brandon Andrus), the anti-immigration official in Liberty:
“The question to-day is not of preventing the wards of our almshouses, our insane asylums, and our jails from being stuffed to repletion by new arrivals from Europe; but of protecting the American rate of wages, the American standard of living, and the quality of American citizenship from degradation through the tumultuous access of vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry from the countries of eastern and southern Europe.” Sound familiar?
“Liberty,” in this work, is the very young daughter of Bartholdi who is sent to America to get funding for the pedestal for her father’s statue. She’s winningly portrayed by Abigail Shapiro. However, there’s an inherent problem. She’s a girl with a sweet girl’s voice which in ensembles is overpowered by the full-throated voices of others in the cast. This is handled well in the most crucial part of the show, the reading/singing of “Huddled Masses,” which uses lines from the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus.” “Liberty” sings it first but it’s repeated by one cast member after another to very great effect.
The entire cast is excellent. Emma Lazarus is beautifully played by Emma Rosenthal. C. Mingo Long is outstanding as Samuel Ferguson; his powerful voice is opera worthy.
There’s a delightful duet, “We Had It Worse” by Patrick McKay (Mark Aldrich) citing Irish troubles, and Olga Moscowitz (Tina Stafford) detailing Eastern European Jewry’s woes. These two characters also provide comic relief as does Nick DeVito as Giovanni Ferro, an Italian immigrant trying to learn English. And yes, there are numerous laugh lines.
The thrust of Liberty is the raising of funds for the pedestal and how everybody should be involved because it affected everybody—no millionaires, just as little as a penny, but a penny from everyone. (Sound like the Bernie Sanders campaign?)
Doing double duty, Mark Aldrich is a terrific Joseph Pulitzer while Tina Stafford also plays Regina Schuyler. In Liberty as in life, Joseph Pulitzer played a major role in raising money to fund the pedestal by printing the name of every contributor. It helped him as well. People would buy copies of his newspaper, The World, to see their names.
The book and lyrics are by Dana Leslie Goldstein based on Lady of Copper, by Dana Leslie Goldstein, Jon Goldstein and Robert Bruce McIntosh. The stirring score is by Jon Goldstein, brother of the lyricist. Jeffrey Lodin created the arrangements and is the musical director.
While the performance of Regina Schuyler veers into caricature, the direction by Evan Pappas is otherwise admirable.
It was produced by Theresa Wozunk, MMW Productions, Erik Stangvik and Tim Harper, in association with Theater Garden Ltd.
*A word of advice: the pop embellishment following the final chords of “Horizon Finale” lessens the impact of the piece. Think of the ringing chords at the end of “La Marseillaise,” “Climb Every Mountain,” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Liberty describes itself as “a monumental new musical.” It’s a family-friendly show and even very little children were engrossed. It addresses our aspirations, the American of our hopes and dreams and, yes, this reviewer wept!
Liberty officially opened on July Fourth at 42West, located at 514 West Forty-Second Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Aves. in Manhattan for an open-ended run. It is eighty minutes long and has no intermission. www.LibertytheMusical.com
Photos: Russ Rowland