Liberty: A Monumental New Musical captures an America not unlike the one we see today: a place where people want to come, but also where many struggle to find work and build a simple but stable life. The story begins when Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a French artist, lovingly completes his statue and sends her to the United States (it's a gift from France to commemorate a century of independence), as if she were his own child. Liberty (played by teenage actress Abigail Shapiro) comes looking for a pedestal on which she can stand to spread her message of hope and freedom.
However, when she arrives at Ellis Island, she is given the same treatment as every other immigrant. She is poked and prodded, and given the twice-over; only to be rejected—after all, what is her purpose here anyway? Hope? That’s not enough. Commissioner Francis A. Walker, who was responsible for the census in the mid-1800s (played with a debonair charm by Brandon Andrus), schedules her to return to France on the next boat. Liberty perseveres. After all, hope is not only for the immigrant, but for everyone seeking freedom and a better life.
The wonderful cast brings life to a variety of characters: an Italian immigrant (Nick Devito), an Irish foreman (Mark Aldrich, who also plays news mogul Joseph Pulitzer), a Russian knish seller (Tina Stafford, who moves gracefully between the Russian Olga, and a wealthy American heiress named Regina Schuyler), a former slave (C. Mingo Lingo), and a native American Indian (Ryan Duncan).
Liberty is a love song to New York—a city that embraces everyone, or at least tries to—but it’s also a history lesson. There’s a great deal of information about Emma Lazarus, played with tight-lipped determination by Emma Rosenthal, who is the most well-drawn character in the play, and the most interesting. She teaches English to Giovanni, an Italian immigrant who seems to hang around the port (is he being deported, or just a loafer?). His improved English increases his betting options: “Ten to one!” he says triumphantly and skitters off. Emma looks after him with a wry smile, clearly amused. This intrigue, however, is forbidden: Emma is from an affluent Jewish family that has been in America for four generations. Hanging around the port and new immigrants is not what a society girl is supposed to do, even if she is a poet, and Regina Schuyler, a wealthy woman who puts her money where it will give her the highest profile, makes sure Emma knows she’s being watched.
With book and lyrics by Dana Leslie Goldstein, there are some laughs along the way. Particularly funny are “The Charity Tango” sung by Liberty, Commissioner Walker and Schuyler, and “We Had It Worse” in which the Russian immigrant Olga and the Irish immigrant Patrick McKay compete to see who had it worse when they first arrived in America. However, as they crescendo in their comparisons, they also discover they agree on something when they sing: “Kids have no idea what hard work is” (…) “Soft” (…) “like a boiled cabbage,” and do a double-take in each other’s direction; they finish the song with a broad smile.
The production is fun, and kid-friendly, but very uneven. While the libretto is outstanding, the music by Jon Goldstein sounds canned; all the tracks seem to have been created on a synthesizer. The stage also feels small, not only because it is small, but because Evan Pappas's staging lacks dynamics and, at times, deflates the production. Some choreographed movement would have given the actors some breadth and depth and the production real musical-theater flair. Nonetheless, the cast clearly has their musical theater chops, and is led to a hopeful finale by Lady Liberty, who proves that perseverance pays off—a message we know is often true.
Liberty: A Monumental New Musical plays an open run at 42 West, 514 West 42nd St., between 10th and 11th avenues. Performances are Sundays at 2 and 5 p.m.; Mondays and Wednesdays at 3 and 7 p.m.; and Thursdays at noon and 3 p.m. Tickets are $72/$36 (premium/child premium); $63 (adult); $27 (children 4-12) and may be purchased by visiting LibertyTheMusical.com.