Review: 'Liberty Smith' by NewArts

Nancy Sasso Janis

Early August means that the young people of the Newtown area are ready to present the performances of their always magical shows with the 1214 Foundation, now under the wing of NewArts Musicals. In their first year, they did a personalized version of ‘Seussical: The Musical’ with John Tartaglia as The Cat. Last year, the older students presented a rockin' version of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with Broadway veterans Clarke Thorell, Marla Mindelle, and Saum Eskandani, while the younger ones worked on ‘101 Dalmatians’ with   Kristine Zbornik as the evil Cruella. Considering how high these previous productions have set the bar, I couldn’t help but be excited to see this year’s first choice. 

Founder/Executive Producer Dr. Michael Baroody explained during his curtain speech that one of the goals for the NewArts productions is to provide the young adults with wonderful role models. Surrounding these already talented young performers with the greatness of theatre professionals will inspire them to greatness that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. This year these caring adults chose ‘Liberty Smith’  for the mostly older students in the program. 

The show is a musical based upon an original story by Marc Madnick and Eric R. Cohen with   music by Michael Weiner (‘First Date,’) lyrics by Adam Abraham and a clever book by Marc Madnick, Eric. R. Cohen, and Adam Abraham. ‘Liberty Smith’ premiered in 2011 at the Ford's Theatre, in Washington, DC, and now moves up to Newtown, CT.   The cheeky musical is billed as being filled with comedy, romance and adventure. It recounts the “possibly true and fantastical tale of America’s forgotten founding father.” 

Look out George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Paul Revere and your reported historical accomplishments. This story reveals for the first time that Liberty Smith is somehow responsible for just about all major events in the American Revolution.  It's ‘Forrest Gump’ meets ‘1776’ (with a little ‘Schoolhouse Rock: America Rock’ thrown in for good measure) where everyone can change the course of history... whether they make it into the textbooks or not.  A synopsis appears on the show’s website.

What I liked most about the choice for this year was the fact that it was original in so many ways. The historical aspects were anything but dry and the audience began to look forward to the next manner in which the aptly named Liberty will insert himself into the founding of the United States. The songs cleverly move along the plot, with Mr. Franklin stringing together his witticisms in “The Art of Wit,” and Mr. Revere blundering his way through “Truth, Justice and the New England Way,” Sprinkled throughout are some very funny contemporary references that were fun to notice. 

The talent on the production side is staggering. Artistic director Michael Unger, also Associate Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company, returned to Newtown for the third year to direct and produce this piece. JoAnn M. Hunter, who has 18 Broadway shows under her belt and is involved in the widely anticipated new Broadway musical ‘School of Rock’ did the excellent choreography. Jeffrey Saver returned to serve as Music Director and will be associate conductor for ‘Allegiance’ on Broadway; Alan Lee Silva did the orchestrations.  Brian Prather gets the credit for the magnificent set of hanging panels that ran the length of the stage upon which historical locations were projected. Disney lovers may have been reminded of the scope of EPCOT’s American Adventure, but there was also a huge revolving section of the stage that was just as impressive. 

G. Benjamin Swope designed the wondrous lighting and David Bullard was in charge of the effective sound design. Sarah Jane Schostack assisted Mr. Unger and Erin Keller, assistant prop master for Hartford Stage, did the fun props. Kristina Sneshkoff designed that meticulous period costumes and Carissa Thorlakson was the designer of the numerous wigs and hair. Maryrose Kristopik, a veteran music teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, was casting coordinator. Broadway producer Van Dean served as production consultant and was in the lobby with freshly released copies of the recording of last year’s ‘A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Scotty McCreery was the production sponsor this year. 

It was a joy for me to see the familiar Newtown faces on their stage in another completely different production. Lexi Tobin glowed as the musical’s narrator named Libby Smith. Kirsten Liniger changed costumes (and genders) often to play a teacher, Mrs. Dandridge, James Otis, a courtier, William Clarke and various ensemble roles; she is just that good. Willem Sandercox was regal as George Washington and William Molineux. Olyvia Shaw was Meriwether Lewis in the final scene. 

I quickly spotted the lovely Brianna Bauch as Martha (Dandridge) (Custis) Washington, Liberty’s first love interest, despite her beautiful wigs. She returned in slightly more common dress for ensemble roles and of course she always sang beautifully. 

 Cameron Bell was on point in the title role. Rachel Rival was striking in the role of future feminist Emily Andrews, the niece of Betsy Ross, who was well-played by Juliana Koziol. Melissa Shohet was surprisingly convincing as Benjamin Franklin. Madison Lemone had great comic timing as a many town criers with ever changing headgear and also played Samuel Adams. Alec Hersh was great in the role of Paul Revere, while Miranda Wakeman played his wife Rachel. Jack Armstrong appeared as John Hancock, Jerusha Wright was Dr. Joseph Warren, and Marina Kolitsas became Josiah Quincy.

Charles Romano was the overworked Thomas Jefferson. Katie Wolff was the fussy Marie Antoinette while the terrific C.J. Landgrebe (who played a duke last year) was King Louis XVI, as well as the father of our country’s father Augustine Washington and Governor Hutchinson. Some little ones were part of the ensemble that appeared as students, farmers, colonists, angels, courtiers, and soldiers.

 ‘Liberty Smith’ only ran this weekend, but next weekend NewArts will present six performances of ‘The Lion King, Jr.’ at Newtown High School. There is a double cast for this production featuring younger actors, many of whom were seated in front of me at the ‘Liberty Smith’ matinee. Tickets are available online or at the door. I recommend ordering your ticket online for assigned seating