As many in the music-theatre world will tell you, three main genres of musicals are being produced today. There’s your “classic” fare from the golden days of 30’s and 40’s American musical. There’s your Sondheim and Sondheim spinoffs. And then there’s Disney. The last is marked by amiable tunes supported by somewhat witty if anachronistic lyrics in a book packed with political correctness and family values.
The world premiere Liberty Smith so succeeds in this Disney genre that I couldn’t help musing which animated animal would be chosen to portray Liberty as the older narrator of the tale in Disney’s next venture. The creators clearly set out to create the movie version and have all but nailed a paint-by-numbers animated musical mega-hit. How else to explain the “romp” through history on a stage which was so dazzlingly chaotic that it could only have been surpassed by the romp backstage of costume changes.
Liberty Smith follows the picaresque tale of the young adventure seeker, Liberty, who starts out the first wooer of Martha Washington née Dandridge (not Dandruff as is the overused joke), then apprentice to Benjamin Franklin, then counselor at the court of Louis XVI, and even editor and writing “doctor” to Thomas Jefferson. If there’s revolutionary history to be made, Liberty shows up. It seems a natural choice for the historical Ford’s Theatre whose trade comes from being a favorite tourist spot. The night I saw the show, two hundred and thirty some school children from Ohio swarmed the theatre and sat attentively with pop-eyed wonder through the theatrical display. But sadly the young audience only got a few of the jokes. (“He shot me in the ass!” receiving the biggest guffaw.) And if mommies and daddies think that this production will help correct lapses in their children’s studies of American History, be forewarned. These boy creators are having too much fun.
Composer Mark Weiner and Librettist Adam Abraham have devised some hit numbers in a pop-inspired style. “The Art of Wit”, sung as a quartet by Christopher Bloch as Benjamin Franklin, Donna Migliaccio as Betsy Ross, and Geoff Packard and Kelly Karbacz as the love interest, was well-crafted and especially effective. Richard Pelzman as a drunken, hen-pecked Paul Revere gets a great turn to show off his singing chops with the ensemble in “Truth, Justice, and the New England Way.” I enjoyed enormously “Declaration”, another quartet, particularly because it was so clearly led by the musical-actor’s actor Bobby Smith as Thomas Jefferson, struggling with postettes and writer’s block over the Declaration of Independence.
The singing was strong throughout and the ensemble sounded terrific. The big numbers such as “The World Turned Upside Down” at the end of Act 1 and the soldiers’ songs popping up here and there were especially rich. The last made me borrow and refashion a thought from the script, that behind every great male chorus are a few hidden females to give the sound extra luster. It’s no wonder the Ensemble sounded so good.
Singers Gia Moro, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Donna Migliaccio, Lauren Williams, Christopher Bloch, Matthew A. Anderson, Michael Bunce, Drew Eshelman, Richard Pelzman, James Konicek, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Gregory Maheu, and Bobby Smith are outstanding performers and stalwarts of the local music-theatre scene. Together this ensemble raised the roof with their sound, ably aided by Musical Director Jay Crowder and sound designer David Budries. The fire power of this team turned up even more in the second act. I’d recommend the show for the Ensemble sound alone, a sound that kept on giving.
Other production values were also high. I delighted in both the quantity and the quick change versatility of the costumes, designed by Wade Laboissonniere. The King Louis XVI court costumes were stunning. I shall long remember both the high wig adorned with a full sailing ship (assembled by Cookie Jordan and miraculously carried aloft by Gia Moro as Marie Antoinette) and the sassy panniers of all the ladies that get stripped off for a wigged-out American hootenanny. Matt August ably managed to anchor this rollicking work with a set that could easily transfer the action from land to ship to European court and back to the newly established America.
The book is what kept nagging at me. I imagined the writing team members in some dorm room egging each other on to greater cleverness and excess. It seems a hodge podge in this iteration. For whom were they writing? The younger audience members couldn’t get the historical references. And some oldies needed an explanation for lines like the Town Crier’s “It’s 4 o’clock. I have two hundred and sixty-four friends!” I kept feeling that this was a Trivial Pursuits game gone awry, that is to say an adventure-love story in search of an emotional center.
Geoff Packard carries the tale. His beautiful voice and feckless manner served him well in the bitingly satirical Candide. Here, still playing a fellow who blithely goes through life wearing his heart on his sleeve, I found him just a little hollow. He had a wonderful moment when he discovers the inspiration to his life has just married his childhood friend and rival, George Washington. “But I loved you,” he says, unable to take this news into his wounded psyche. I wanted more emotional moments of truth prepared for him. The same could be said of the role of Emily, who was created, of course, to fulfill the obligatory role model for school-age girls to want their own place in the world and an opportunity to fight their own sword fights. Kelly Karbacz gets both and was given a lot of swaggering and bellowing at gender inequities. But there was little depth in the writing of her character. Additionally, there was some strain on the higher notes the night I saw it.
This show’s impulse came from the puerile set and a generation jazzed by movies-into-video. Benedict Arnold smelled as foul as Captain Hook remade as “Pirates-of-the-Caribbean”’s Jeffrey Rush. Ben Franklin’s aphorisms devolved into “Ding Dong the witch is dead” and the like. The creative team made so many references to the big and small screen, it seemed at times theirs was the art of pandering, squandering all on the big Disney audition. Less might have been more.
All this aside, would I recommend the show for a good-feelings night out that helps us remember why we love America? You betcha!
Music by Michael Weiner . Lyrics by Adam Abraham .
Book by Marc Madnick, Eric R. Cohen and Adam Abraham
Based on the original story by Marc Madnick and Eric R. Cohen
Directed by Matt August
Music Direction by Jay Crowder
Choreographed by Denis Jones
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You
- Bob Mondello . Washington City Paper
Doug Rule .MetroWeekly
Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
- Patrick Pho . WeLoveDC
- Peter Marks . Washington Post