Friday, April 01, 2011

Ford’s ‘Liberty Smith’ Evokes Laughter, Delight from Audience

On Wednesday evening, Nigel Ashford, Tim Hulsey, Richard Morrison, and I were able to see the world premiere of Liberty Smith at Ford's Theatre. Before the show and during the intermission, I was able to chat with the show's composer, Michael Weiner, who spoke to me by telephone a few weeks ago.

Here is my review of Liberty Smith, intended for next week's edition of The Metro Herald.

Romance! Danger! Comedy!
Ford’s ‘Liberty Smith’ Evokes Laughter, Delight from Audience
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

If your weekend plans include seeing the new musical Liberty Smith at Ford’s Theatre, you don’t need Rebecca Black to tell you to expect “fun, fun, fun, fun” on Friday, Saturday, or the Sunday that comes afterwards. If you don’t yet have tickets for Liberty Smith, why not? You should.

Ford’s latest production is a wholesome family musical, appropriate for theatregoers of all ages. That said, it is neither sedate nor anodyne. Instead, the rollicking show offers all the romance, danger, and comedy that another new musical across the river fails to supply.

Liberty Smith is historical fiction set in the time of the American Revolution. Far from a docudrama, however, it takes liberties (no pun intended) with the facts so that sticklers for chronology might be puzzled or offended. No matter, since it’s all in good fun and serves the purpose of entertaining the audience.

The story opens, Cyrano-like, when an old (132 years old!) Liberty interrupts a clumsy stage production of Parson Weems’ story of George Washington and the cherry tree, saying “that’s not how it happened. I know, because I was there.” The year is 1859 – not incidental, since that was the eve of the Civil War, an event that would change the prism through which American history is observed. The story proceeds as a series of flashbacks, with Old Liberty (Drew Eshelman) narrating here and there but not obtrusively so.

As the narrative begins, the young George Washington (Gregory Maheu) has befriended the eponymous Liberty Smith (Geoff Packard), an orphan farmhand living near Mount Vernon in Virginia. (These types of heroes are nearly always orphans, perhaps because family ties would anchor them to a specific place and prevent their free spirits from wandering where the story needs to take them.)

Enamored with neighborhood belle Martha Dandridge – played by Lauren Williams with all the tact and charm of a middle-school Queen Bee -- who mockingly bids him to free the colonies from British rule, Liberty sets out on a knight errant’s quest (like the role model in his favorite book, Don Quixote) that takes him to Philadelphia, Boston, Paris, and more.

Along the way, Liberty encounters Betsy Ross, Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Thomas Jefferson, King Louis XVI of France and his consort, Marie Antoinette, and dozens of other patriots and knaves (including a villainous Benedict Arnold).

Like Zelig or Forrest Gump, Liberty Smith finds himself in places where history is being made and, in fact, inadvertently makes it himself – though others invariably end up with the credit. And throughout, his story is told through song and dance.

The songs are all Broadway-style, many pastiches of familiar forms. Composer Michael Weiner draws not only on colonial-era tunes (“Yankee Doodle,” for instance) for atmospherics but also on 20th century standards and showtunes for his inspiration. In combination with lyricist Adam Abraham, the team becomes a latter-day Stan Freberg.

There’s a comic list song (“The Art of Wit”) that catalogs proverbs, quips, and clichés. “One Shocking Moment” not only shows the protagonist’s state of mind but makes wicked fun of over-the-top Ziegfeld Follies-style dream sequences. “Declarations” uncovers a less-than-ideal process of writing the Declaration of Independence.

A feminist anthem (“A Better Tomorrow,” sung by Kelly Karbacz as Emily) echoes Ragtime’s “Back to Before” while the first-act finale (“The World Turned Upside Down”) is a de rigueur spoof of Les Miserables, the sort of send-up we can trace at least to 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. It is to the creative team’s credit that they can poke fun at meta-musicals like Urinetown and Avenue Q with subtlety and wit while avoiding the snarkiness of the “originals.”

Liberty Smith’s conventional musical style is no disadvantage – when you see two young people disdain each other in Act I, you know wedding bells will ring by the end of Act II – and instead extends and reinforces the overall entertainment experience. Predictability, in this case, enhances the comic twists that pop up like Whack-a-Moles every five minutes or so.

While the subject matter may be the stuff of the 18th century, Liberty Smith is peppered with contemporary pop-culture allusions. Although the writing team responsible for it has been working on the script and songs off-and-on since the mid-1990s (and in earnest since 2006), which might have resulted in stale creakiness, Liberty Smith is as current and fresh as a headline from The Onion or a “Funny-or-Die” viral video.

Some dialogue echoes the scene, oft-repeated late at night in dorm rooms, from Monty Python’s Life of Brian about the “Judean People’s Front, People’s Front of Judea,” etc. One song’s lyric mentions “George W” and the “coalition of the willing.” There is even a reference to Johnny Tremain, the main character of the Newbery Award-winning book of the same name, whose similarity to Liberty Smith is winked at by Mrs. Paul Revere, who says “that’s another story.”

The 20-member cast is made up mostly of Washington-area actors, including at least six Helen Hayes Award nominees and winners. (Music director Jay Crowder, who leads an 8-person ensemble with a richer sound than its size would indicate, is also a Helen Hayes recipient while fight director Brad Waller and director Matt August have both been previously nominated.)

While funnier than most in a genre characterized by self-important sobriety, Liberty Smith would not be out of place as an outdoor drama (for example, the Outer Banks’ venerable pageant, The Lost Colony) and, with a trim to about 80 minutes from its current two and a half hour running time, could easily become a successful fixture at Colonial Williamsburg or Busch Gardens. As it is, many tourists visiting Washington as well as school groups will be able to take advantage of the show’s presence at Ford’s through May 21. (The “Child Actor,” played on opening night by grammar-school-age Noah Chiet, is on stage in almost every scene, a compelling presence to keep the attention of kids in the audience.)

Liberty Smith could also be easily adapted for performances by high school or college theatre groups, even without the elaborate, eye-popping costumes designed by Wade Laboissonniere and the multi-leveled set (which fits nicely into Ford’s narrow performance space) of scenic designer Court Watson.

It is hard to think up enough complimentary terms to praise Liberty Smith. Totally unpretentious, the creative team – book writers Marc Madnick and Eric R. Cohen in addition to librettist-lyricist Abraham and composer Weiner – achieve precisely what they set out to do: to deliver an enjoyable, entertaining romp into America’s revolutionary past.

While it does not “advance the form,” Liberty Smith is a delightful throwback to the sort of Broadway revue one might have seen in the 1950s. This is not an Adam Guettel-style cerebral challenge. As a matter of fact, too much thinking might detract from the overall enjoyable experience: just sit back and let flow its life, “Liberty,” and the pursuit of happiness.

Liberty Smith: music by Michael Weiner, lyrics by Adam Abraham, book by Marc Madnick, Eric R. Cohen, and Adam Abraham; choreographed by Denis Jones; directed by Matt August, continues through May 21, 2011, at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W., in Washington. Performances Monday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (except April 25), matinees on Fridays and Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. (except April 1 and 15 and May 6 and 13); noon matinees on May 6 and 13. Ticket prices: $15 to $55 with discounts available for groups, senior citizens, military personnel, and those younger than 35. Tickets available through Ticketmaster at 800-551-7328 and

If you've read this far, you should know that I really liked Liberty Smith. I strongly recommend it and may even go to see it again myself before it closes next month.

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!
Follow my tweets on Twitter! 

No comments: