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NYMF 2015: Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty; Songs for the Fallen; What Do Critics Know?

This is TheaterMania's fifth and final review roundup of the 2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Gil Perez-Abraham and Shakina Nayfack lead the cast of Noemi de la Puente and David Davila's Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty, directed by José Zayas, at the Pershing Square Signature Center for NYMF.
(© Shira Friedman)

Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty

By Zachary Stewart

"If you're here illegally, I will find you and beat the sh*t out of you," a pugnacious Lady Liberty warns us at the beginning of Noemi de la Puente and David Davila's Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty. Brave and ambitious in both form and content, this winner of NYMF's 2014 Developmental Reading Series is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

The story follows Manuel (Gil Perez-Abraham), a star student of classical literature with aspirations to attend Princeton. There's one major problem: He was born in the Dominican Republic and has been undocumented in the United States since age 2 (the musical's inspiration, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, has a new memoir

). With the help of his Mami (Tami Dahbura), sister Yolanda (Alicia Taylor Tomasko), and kindly gringo teacher Mr. Walsh (Michael Marotta), Manuel challenges the Statue of Liberty (Shakina Nayfack) to a fight for his American Dream.

Nayfack plays Liberty like she's auditioning to be the next Fox News blonde, full of sass and right-wing talking points. Perez-Abraham is soulful and sympathetic. His Dominican dork look, complete with finely combed hair and a white polo shirt (costumes by Lux Haac), is a nice touch. Staged like an extended boxing match, director José Zayas' production floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. The highly energetic ensemble supports almost every number.

Davila and de la Puente use an idiosyncratic mix of pop, rock, Latin, and hip-hop to tell their story in a manner reminiscent of Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton). But where Miranda uses rap to elucidate American history in Hamilton, de la Puente and Davila use that form's lyrical density to highlight our byzantine immigration law.

Unfortunately, serious sound balance issues render half of these lyrics unintelligible. The actors strain to be heard over the band, leaving them sounding tired and hoarse by the end of the show. This is too bad because Manuel tackles a vital issue of our time. It deserves a full hearing.

Sheridan Harbridge stars in Sheridan Harbridge & Basil Hogios' Songs for the Fallen, directed by Shane Anthony, at Theatre 3 for NYMF.
(© Louis Dilion-Savage)

Songs for the Fallen

By Hayley Levitt

If Dave Malloy's electro-pop ode to War and Peace (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) and David Adjmi's anachronistic Marie Antoinette met at a smoky downtown cabaret, Songs for the Fallen would be the love child born from their drug-induced stupor. Famous 19th-century Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis is the one being dragged into a strobe-lit 21st century this time — and as Sheridan Harbridge flamboyantly depicts, she's a girl who will take a spotlight anywhere she can find one.

Like Malloy and Adjmi, Harbridge (who penned the book, cowrote the score with Basil Hogios, and stars as the off-the-wall centerpiece of the musical) capitalizes on a quirky irreverence and modern sensibility that brings historical characters into a hyper-energized contemporary context. Director Shane Anthony's final product has a strong and delightfully impertinent heartbeat. However, the sound is muffled beneath a thick layer of self-deprecation and sensory stimuli, which, rather than adding to the musical's stylized sauciness (featuring an eye-catching nod to period costume by Lisa Mimmocchi), seems to desperately beg the audience not to change the channel — and for no discernible reason.

One of the biggest shots Songs for the Fallen takes at itself is its subject matter. The tragic story of the manipulative party girl Marie Duplessis — in whom Harbridge is far from the first to find a worthy muse — who loved for money and died of consumption at age 23, famously inspired Alexandre Dumas' The Lady of the Camellias, Verdi's subsequent opera La Traviata, and Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, among other lesser-known adaptations. Harbridge, with unbridled charisma and abandon, takes her own naughtily playful crack at the oft-portrayed seductress (Simon Corfield and Garth Holcomb portraying her various lovers). She's a captivating chanteuse, with a voice perfectly suited for her Hogios' tragically frenetic score and a talent for grabbing an audience by the lapels (sometimes literally). As long as she remains at the center of the production, Songs for the Fallen can feel comfortable spending less time convincing us to listen to the story and more time telling it.

Sarah Stevens, Kaitlin Frank, Chris Gleim, Danny Harris Kornfeld, Sean Bell, and Lindsay Bayer star in James Campodonico and Matthew Gurren's What Do Critics Know?, directed by Michael Bello, at the Pershing Square Signature Center for NYMF.
(© Nick Tighe)

What Do Critics Know?

By Zachary Stewart

Critics know when a musical is derivative. They know when it has a cloying desire to be funny, but only ever elicits tepid laughter. Critics are also acutely aware of when a show blasts past its advertised running time of two hours. All of those things are true of Matthew Gurren and James Campodonico's musical throwback What Do Critics Know? This backstager is reminiscent of The Producers, The Band Wagon, and Bullets Over Broadway without ever being as hilarious or enjoyable.

Playwright Nathan Wood (Chris Gleim) is down on his luck. The critics have savaged his latest work, the Dave Eggers-ianly titled Breakthrough. New York Times critic Chester Cotillion (Ryan Knowles channeling Addison DeWitt) smears his review with 10-dollar insults while the Tribune critic (Mary Mossberg) pens a nasty haiku. Brad, the New York Post critic (Prescott Seymour), is so mean he even denies Nathan a tip at his day job waiting tables at a midtown diner owned by mobster Tony (Danny Bolero). To avenge his loyal employee, Tony decides to blackmail those snobs, threatening to expose their dirty secrets unless they create their own show that can weather the wrath of the critics (who end up being themselves).

In scoring this contrived and illogical plot, Gurren and Campodonico employ a predictable pastiche: Tarantella for Tony, British operetta for Cotillion. All the characters are straight out of central casting circa 1955. Michael Bello's efficient staging makes the most of this thin broth (as does Justin Boccitto's energetic choreography), but it's not enough to make a hearty meal.

Its period setting and Golden Age razzle-dazzle may lead What Do Critics Know? to become a favorite for high school and community theaters. Anyone who knows any better will be left to marvel at the astounding feat of stretching so little substance over nearly two and a half hours.