Sound Advice Reviews
In Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's One Touch of Venus, a statue came to life. Irving Berlin focused on the Statue of Liberty and its model and dedication for Miss Liberty. Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz explored the immigrant experience in Rags. Liberty asks us to imagine the statue personified, becoming a character. A young girl, played by child actress Abigail Shapiro, serves as a conscience, pleading for kindness, advocating for fairer treatment for immigrants, and directly encouraging them. And she needs donations for a pedestal so she can take her iconic place in the waters as a beacon of hope. Imagine, if you will.
Directed by noted musical theatre performer Evan Pappas, Liberty is a decidedly unblinkingly earnest piece. Its upbeat nature and sincerity just barely save it from sinking in a quicksand of preachiness. Rather than wave the flag to present its characters as noble and heroic, it doesn't hesitate to show prejudice, selfishness, and resentment. While told in broad strokes, it shows people thinking and changing their minds, warming up to new ideas and each other. The determination and pluck that can best be delivered by a youngster is disarming rather than overly combative, as it might be with an adult playing the part. It's an oddly appealing endeavor that has charm, but may test the patience of curmudgeons and those wanting more complex characterizations rather than "types." But, while it may be accused of oversimplifying issues and attitudes, it makes its points and can be persuasive. It also gives us things to cheer for and champions the good in people.
Dana Leslie Goldstein (lyrics and book) and Jon Goldstein (music) sell their messages about integrity and the lack thereof with some forceful songs that the eight-person cast and three-person band led by pianist/arranger Jeffrey Lodin) deliver with conviction. Percussionist Jeff Roberts and bassist Adam DeAscentis complete the trio. (This bassist is also on Shapiro Sisters' album reviewed below, and Michael J. Moritz, Jr. and Billy LaGuardia, the other two of three musicians on that CD are, respectively, producer and assistant producer of this cast album.)
The early songs let Liberty and her boatmates sing of their hopes and fears, only to meet the unsympathetic non-welcome of the man in charge at Ellis Island, played with suitable gruffness by Ben McHugh, and his yes-men saying "no" to many entering port. (In "The Other Half," they sing, "We know the rules/ If they got no clout/ It's our duty to shut 'em out.") McHugh and Cheryl Stern, as an equally hard-hearted rich matron, have an effective number confirming their reluctance to help the less fortunate, singing of how they won't do "The Charity Tango" (you can guess the style of music). Actress Stern doubles as a Jewish immigrant who escaped pogroms competitively comparing notes with a poor Irishman (Tom Souhrada) in the very welcome comic moment "We Had It Worse." While somewhat of a one-joke premise, with dialogue, the comedy still works as each is quick to minimize any advantages ("You had a book? We couldn't even read.")
Much of the heart and soul rests on the slender shoulders of its young star, but Abigail Shapiro rises to the occasion rather well. She's vigorous with her quite solid singing voice, even in moments that strain credulity and veer toward nagging repetition. The indefatigable Liberty buoys up a struggling Native American (Ryan Duncan) and former slave (attractively rich-voiced C. Mingo Long, singing of wanting and needing "More"), both seeking honest work. And our other heroine is Emma Lazarus (Emma Rosenthal) who works as a supportive translator at Ellis Island and who, of course, penned the poem adorning the pedestal ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."). As in Miss Liberty, it's set to music as a climax to the proceedings. The resourceful Liberty also challenges newspaper kingpin Joseph Pulitzer (Souhrada again, thickly accented) to help publicize the need for donations for her pedestal. The eighth member of the cast, Andrew DiTusa, as a boy from Italy, gets little chance to sing alone, but shows promise with energy in his few moments and in dialogue. (All lyrics and dialogue are in the booklet, which also has color photos from the production, a synopsis, and background information. Reminiscent of the song/scene where Pulitzer offers to name each contributor to the pedestal fund, the dozens of people who contributed funds to the project are all listed, too.)
With ongoing debates about immigration, the theme is a relevant one. And, while one can find fault with some of the simpler lyrics and the occasional false rhyme ("Tower of Babel"/"unravel"; "plans"/ "Americans"), there's a sweetness to this project that resonates. While it has some heavy-handedness, it also has nice touches, such as lines in "America for Americans" like the opening one, "My fellow citizens" set to "America"'s opening phrase, "My country 'tis of thee" and more. And who can't use an encouraging reminder like the one Liberty sings in the uplifting "Possible": "If it's possible to see things in a way they never were/ That's how a transformation can occur./ It's the secret all the dreamers know."
In the live recording of their nightclub act at Manhattan's 54 Below, Live Out Loud, Shapiro Sisters sing out loud. Belting their power ballads and showstoppers, the two quite skilled kids nail their notes and sing with plenty of brio and apparent confidence. Somewhere between precociousness and polished slickness, Abigail and Milly retain their girlish gleeespecially in the enthused between-songs banter. They emphasize their delight and appreciation in being able to perform in the club and their talent and aplomb proves their earned right to be there. And an appreciative audiencethankfully without hooting and holleringsounds satisfied, too. The act was recorded a year ago, when Milly was 11 and Abigail two years older, although a "teen-age" feeling is largely absent, except perhaps when the thoroughly modern Abigail sings of wanting love in Thoroughly Modern Millie's "Gimme Gimme."
Much of their repertoire is, rewardingly, age-appropriate ... though not especially imaginative in its selection (young female roles from recent musical theatre pieces and animated films) or arrangements/interpretations. Few chances are taken that way. The well-versed theatre aficionado who'd favor reinvention or rethought arrangements and tempi can virtually sing along in time at first hearing. Thus, the traditionalists who like songs done as originally performed will be happier. A refreshing choice is the lesser-known "The Pretty Little Dolly" (Jim Rusk) which becomes increasingly sly and mad. With a child as young as Milly taking it on, its twists on cuteness are even more surprising. She shows impressive versatility, as does Abigail, who has been Cindy Lou in The Madison Square Garden production of The Grinch... as well as Liberty.
Speaking of possible surprises, most of the performances are not duets between the two Shapiros; there are many solos. They don't milk the fact that they are sisters in choosing songs, eschewing the obvious possibilities of numbers like Irving Berlin's "Sisters" or the young show biz siblings in Gypsy. Indeed, it's the terrific-sounding Andrea McArdle who pairs up with each girl in a separate duet: one from Gypsy (after one sister's exit"Together Wherever We Go" with Abigail) and another Irving Berlin item for McArdle and Milly: Since Milly is one of the girls chosen to alternate in the title role of Matilda and Andrea famously created the role of the ultimate girl belter in Annie, they team up as those characters for the one-upsmanship classic, "Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun. It's outfitted with special additional words credited to concert/CD producer Van Dean, Broadway Records co-founder, and Abigail. These words are the only ones included in the booklet. Here's a sample: "I've been through many things harder than you/ Forced to clean/ Mum is mean/ Forced to cook/ Dad's a crook." In character, Milly uses her British accent. Tellingly, she also keeps it for "The Girl I Mean to Be" from The Secret Garden for that England-set show's character, rather than making it her non-accented own persona.
Likewise, other performances here feel like they're playing roles rather than revealing their own feelings, the essence of cabaret. Still, they're best when sticking to material for children, rather thanironicallythe one true sisters-specific number written for Side Show's true-life adult conjoined twins. "I Will Never Leave You" is just too intense and its vocabulary too advanced to work here as anything beyond beyond-reach play-acting. And, while Frozen is obviously a big hit among the pre-adolescent set, what about its big overexposed and overwrought hit "Let It Go"? Should one let it go to someone as young as Milly with some of its more grown-up "wisdom"? It can't be denied that the girls sing powerfully and dive right in.
More change-of-place balladry would have been wise and welcome. There's lots of "big" and brash singing. But we do get some thoughtfulness in two choices from the animated film Anastasia by Flaherty and Ahrens. Also twice represented is Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley's A Little Princess: the album/act's title song and opener as a duet and Abigail's very fine solo on "Another World." She calls the central character her dream role, and her fondness for it shows in the more nuanced and involved performance. (Both sisters participated in a group concert of songs from the musical, also at 54 Below.) Shrek's comical princess showpiece about patience, "I Know It's Today," brings in another guest, Jillian Caillouette, for girl-power commiseration that's a delight. It's refreshing to hear this show tune by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire voiced by singers closer to the age of reading and fantasizing about fairy tales.
The triodrummer Billy LaGuardia, bassist Adam DeAscentis, and pianist/musical director, album co-producer (with Van Dean)plays with energy and verve, even when doing a by-the-numbers style approach. ("Together Wherever We Go" has more originality than most; Abigail's beginning piano abilities are substituted for the encore, which is the odd choice of the sobering old anti-war pop hit "One Tin Soldier" for the two.) It will be interesting to see where each of these sisters goes professionally. As far as ability and splashiness, they surely have a happy head start.