by Samuel L. Leiter
The story of how the Statue of Liberty, the greatest symbol of America’s historical openness to immigrants, came to be built is a great one; however, only fragments are to be found in this resurrection of 2014’s Liberty: A Monumental New Musical, which opened on July 4. Instead, the 80-minute show, capably if unexcitingly staged by Evan Pappas, with book and lyrics by Dana Leslie Goldstein and music by Jon Goldstein, is a mixture of fact and fantasy in which the obstacles to the construction of the copper and cast-iron monument’s pedestal are seen through the eyes of a petite jeune fille named Liberty (Abigail Shapiro, all 4’8” of her).
Liberty is the imaginary teenaged daughter of French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (Ryan Duncan), who designed the statue as a gift from France to the bouillabaisse-like melting pot of the United States. The musical invents the fiction that he dispatched his daughter to raise funds for the pedestal, and we observe her struggle to overcome the resistance created by contemporary political and financial issues.
Set between 1884 and 1886, when the statue was dedicated, Liberty is as much a paean to the towering monument proudly standing in New York Harbor as to the immigrant experience itself. The show’s contemporary relevance couldn’t be sharper, with Liberty even singing at one point, “You can’t put up a wall,” when a demagogic politician, Francis A. Walker (Brandon Andrus), sings a nativist oration calling for the closing of America’s borders with a slogan of “America for the real Americans.”
Liberty, fancifully dressed in a golden version of the statue’s familiar Roman robes and sandals, experiences the pre-Ellis Island (opened in 1892) processing of immigrants at Castle Garden, and mingles with various folks, native-born and otherwise. This includes (among others) a stonemason and former slave, Samuel Ferguson (C. Mingo Long), whose “More” is a musical highlight; James Goodleaf (Duncan), a Mohawk ironworker (an anachronism but probably deliberate); Joseph Pulitzer (Aldrich), the Austrian-born newspaper publisher of The World, whose fundraising helped get the pedestal built; and Emma Lazarus (Emma Rosenthal), the wealthy, multilingual author of “The New Colossus,” the famed poem inscribed on the statue (“Give me your tired, your poor . . .”).
Liberty is backed by LED projections designed by Colin Doyle showing images of things like 19th-century immigrants, a waterfront spot at Castle Garden, and, best of all, the construction of the statue. Debbi Hobson’s costumes satisfactorily suggest the period, and Jamie Roderick’s lighting offers efficient support.
Liberty is a family show intended for audiences eight years old and up (check the schedule for afternoon performances); one wonders how many kids (or foreign tourists, like those sitting next to me) will leave thinking the lady in the harbor is there because of the efforts of a tiny French girl with an American accent. Misleading as its history may be, and middling as are much of its book and score (little of which attempts to suggest the music of the day), Liberty nonetheless serves as a moderately effective work of historical propaganda on the importance of immigration in making America great.
The talented company is suitably versatile and the 16-year-old Shapiro—who was in the 2014 version at Theatre 80—sings pleasantly enough (despite occasionally stretching for a high note) and projects sweetness and light; her acting, however, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, needs to run beyond the gamut of A to B.
Liberty has the formulaic, filtered air of a jingoistic school pageant; it really doesn’t get your red, white, and blues unfurled until its final moments when the company sings Lazarus’s words while striking images (I wish there were more) of the statue’s construction are shown. Then little Miss Liberty stands on her own pedestal and raises her lamp as a picture of the real thing lights up behind her. My fellow Americans: it’s a moment worth waiting for.
Liberty: A Monumental New Musical
514 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through September 4
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).