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Manuel Versus the State of Liberty & What Do Critics Know?
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Manuel Versus the State of Liberty

For millions of immigrants flooding to the United States, the Statue of Liberty represented freedom and a new start. But in Noemi de la Puente and David Davila's musical at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty, she's a reminder of everything that's now wrong with the (former?) land of the free. Nativism. Bureaucracy. Distrust. Fear. Sounds like a toe-tapper, doesn't it?

It's a satire, of course, following high-school student Manuel (Gil Perez-Abraham) as he attempts to attend college and, later, study Greek literature abroad despite not being a legal citizen of the U.S. Manuel, who was born before his mother, Mami (Tami Dahbura), arrived in the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, has been here since he was three, and faces nothing but obstacles in his quest, with the Statue (Shakina Nayfack) finding enormous glee in stamping all over his efforts to be recognized as a vital contributor to society.

Librettist-lyricist de la Puente and composer-lyricist Davila aren't trying to be well rounded or tell a rich story. Manuel is essentially perfect, hard-working, nice, obedient, willing to subject himself to the system, and thus could not be more boring. And though plenty of details are dropped about the broken system (including in a terrible but maddeningly infectious song called "Immigration 101," in which Manuel experiences governmental red tape first-hand), you're just supposed to side with Manuel and Mami, and not question any of the underlying assumptions.

The songs, which barely rise above the amateurish level and push their points with almost sneering aggressiveness don't help; Mami is the next best thing to a saint (she even sings "Ave Maria" at one point), and the Statue smarm-belts songs with titles like "It's Against the Law to Be Here Illegally" and "Too Big to Fail." And the book, which sort of imagines Manuel's struggle as a boxing match (hence the title), complete with referee, is not much more piercing. It pretends you already accept its argument, and thus doesn't try to make any new ones.

Accordingly, Manuel and his family have to be incredibly likable, and they are: Perez-Abraham has a boyish amiability, Dahbura a natural warmth, and Alicia Taylor Tomasko brings a good-natured sass to the smaller part of Manuel's sister, Yolanda. Among the ensemble members, AJ Meijer (as the Ref) and Michael Marotta (as a series of authority figures) are the strongest. Nayfack brings an imposing size and stature to the Statue, but pushes to the point of abrasiveness and doesn't sing the role well—her performance is one sustained, bitter bark.

So too is the show itself, despite direction (by José Zayas) and choreography (by Sidney Erik Wright) that try to lighten things up a little. But this is not a show that needs or wants soft, so these efforts don't amount to much. The U.S. is currently embroiled in an intense discussion about immigration and how (or if) it should be reformed; Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty adds nothing to the conversation except a droning voice spouting talking points we've already heard countless times. Maybe instead it should look a bit harder for a real reason to sing?

What Do Critics Know?

I'll give credit to Matthew Gurren and James Campodonico for one thing: titling their NYMF musical What Do Critics Know?, when its plot revolves around three acidic theatre reviewers who are blackmailed into putting on a musical that must get great reviews, and decide on a tragic, vaguely Shakespearean operetta written in Latin. That takes gumption. So, for that matter, does sitting through What Do Critics Know?.

First there's that show, aka Loretta and the Cabin Boy (don't ask), which was written by William Shakespeare and Johann Sebastian Bach (really don't ask). It's the best that Chester (Ryan Knowles), Irma (Mary Mossberg), and Brad (Prescott Seymour), the critics, can slap together with the limited time and resources at their disposal, and as melodramatically insipid as it sounds. Not, alas, in the jaw-dropping manner of Springtime for Hitler, which might make its eventual implosion more fun.

Chester, Irma, and Brad were dragged into this by a carelessly uttered fantasy uttered by Nathan (Chris Gleim), a playwright whose Broadway show the critics witheringly panned. Nathan's mob-connected benefactor, Tony (Danny Bolero), takes the request a little too seriously, and sets the revenge in motion. Not that Nathan has time to worry about it, as he's struggling to put on his own show, The Weathered Storm, to star his pretty young starlet-in-ascendance girlfriend, Dahlia (Sarah Stevens). And wouldn't you just know it that the two musicals get tangled up together.

Librettist-lyricist-composer Gurren and songwriter Campodonico are trying to make a comment about the difficulty of creation and the role objective observers can play in the artistic process. (Irma, a former dancer, and Nathan's former flame, bridges the gap between the worlds.) But that lesson plays as though it was tacked on to a heightened, zany, and oversized musical comedy intended as a less-intellectually-taxing answer to The Producers.

But because What Do Critics Know? lacks Mel Brooks's more daring, individual voice and Susan Stroman's whimsical directorial spin, the resulting show isn't much fun at all. There's a nice song or two (particularly the romantic "The Life I Was Meant to Live," for Dahlia and Irma), and some lively, if utterly extraneous, tap dancing at the end of Act I (the choreographer is Justin Boccito). But Gurren, Campodonico, and director Michael Bello have delivered less an integrated musical than a collection of sketches that aren't brilliant enough to sustain a full evening by themselves.

The performances are all over the map, with Gleim pure Philip Barry, Knowles an amped-up Addison DeWitt, and so on. Mossberg's mature, understated spin on Irma and Kimberly Doreen Burns, dizzy-daffy as the tempestuous star brought in to "save" Loretta, come closest to working, but if the show's moral is that we're all in this together, all of the performers and characters need to at least inhabit the same world.

So do the scenes and songs, of course—putting in random stuff merely for yuks won't do the trick. Right now, however, What Do Critics Know? doesn't look like much more than that, and an example of exactly why Gurren and Campodonico should more readily heed the advice their musical ostensibly proffers to others.

Manuel Versus the State of Liberty & What Do Critics Know?
at The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015
Tickets online, Venue and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015 Guide and Tickets

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