Which of our founding fathers chopped down cherry tree?
Who rode at midnight to warn the colonists that the British were coming?
Who discovered electricity with a kite?
The answer, to all three questions, is Liberty Smith. Or so it is in the brand new musical of the same name playing at Ford’s Theatre. This wholly fictitious piece of theatre imagines a forgotten founding father who embarks on a quest to free the Colonies in the hopes of winning a young girl’s heart.
Geoff Packard as Liberty Smith and Kelly Karbacz as Emily Andrews in the Ford’s Theatre world premiere musical Liberty Smith, directed by Matt August. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The entire two and a half hours (by the way – a far too long running time for such a piece) I kept feeling the kernel of what the authors wanted, but moment after moment seemed to miss the mark. The authors don’t seem to know who the antagonist of the piece is, and they don’t seem to know who the protagonist is either. Is Martha Dandridge (Washington) the antagonist? Or is it Benedict Arnold? Arnold is a more traditional villain, but appears far too late and does too little to be a proper antagonist.
The obvious answer is that Liberty Smith is the protagonist, but despite Geoff Packard’s considerable charm, the authors have given us absolutely no reason to like him. He’s not smart, he’s not brave. He doesn’t accomplish anything. All the events in his life happen by chance. He falls into becoming Benjamin Franklin’s assistant and discovering electricity. He falls into helping the colonies declare their independence. He’s not intelligent enough to realize that Martha Dandridge (at least as she’s portrayed here) is a classist bitch and that Emily Andrews is a far more interesting lady.
So then is Emily Andrews the protagonist? She has spunk and actually is doing something with her life, and is a far more appealing representation of the American spirit than lame Liberty Smith is. But the love story that finally comes about between the two is hurried and unsatisfying. We can’t help that feel that Emily deserves a far better man than the mopey Liberty Smith.
The authors imply that they want a certain style, but don’t pull it off. They cite Disney as an influence, and this piece was originally conceived of as a cartoon. If a cartoon feeling had been accomplished, this musical would make a lot more sense. But only Benedict Arnold (played with fitting ridiculous flair by James Konicek) seems to inhabit that world. Furthermore, if cartoons are your jumping off point, why are the costumes so accurate and dull in color? They should all be more like the costume old Liberty Smith (Drew Eshelmen) is wearing, which is historic, but with a twist. With his long red and blue stripped coat, he looks like a mix between a pirate and Captain America.
The lyrics are perfunctory and cliché (“I’ll spread my wings / and do great things”) and the jokes are dropped on you like a ton of bricks (the town crier’s name is Charles C. Span). Most of the jokes are incredibly topical, which only means that in ten years, this script won’t work at all. References to facebook, calling a situation “awkwwaaaard,” and throwing in a “your mom” joke feels too much like the authors trying to be young and hip. The one time I laughed was when Liberty Smith said they would go to “17-11 and get you a cup of coffee.” Packard knew how to deliver this – he slipped the line in, rather than painting it as a joke. As a result, it landed properly.
Furthermore, the piece is billed as a madcap musical romp, but has a strange streak of cynicism running through it that must be wholly unintentional. First we have the aristocratic attitude of Martha Dandridge. Then there is a dream duet between Martha and Liberty that references having eight babies and only one of them surviving. Then in the scene where Liberty and Emily ask the French for help there is a reference to distracting a country with an international incident. The final moments suggest that Emily died young, soon after their marriage, leaving Liberty alone. The great Americans of the time are all portrayed as drunks and liars.
And then there is the ending. The entire musical, Liberty Smith has been going on and on about how he wants to be a great man, how he wants to accomplish something with his life. When he’s finally given the opportunity, he rejects it. George Washington offers him a spot as Vice President, and he says no. (Oh, actually here was the second time I laughed – one of the characters hearing the tale says something like, “Why did you say no? You could have been as famous as John Breckinride!” Ha!) Then after Liberty decides not to be Vice President he leads the ensemble in the closing number called ‘Dare But to Dream’. But this song feels so inauthentic and tacked on solely to create a message. Sure Liberty Smith has lots of dreams, but he doesn’t accomplish them. None of his dreams come true. The musical ends with him telling us all to keep on dreaming, but we’ve just watched him give up all of his dreams.
There are two scenes where the authors demonstrate that they do have it in them to make this musical charming and successful. The first is the song that introduces us to Benjamin Franklin, ‘The Art of Wit.’ In this number, the authors use cliché to their advantage. Franklin is full of platitudes – and not all of them his own. The audience can enjoy hearing Franklin’s more famous ones (“Early to bed and early to rise…”) mixed among ones stolen from other sources (“The quality of mercy is not strained!”).
Keep these scenes, give Liberty Smith some actual action, ditch the Martha Washington plot entirely (seriously, you don’t need it), develop the characters and relationships more, and you might actually have something.
Though May 21