Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty, we are told, is inspired by the true story of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an undocumented and once-homeless immigrant from the Dominican Republic who got a full scholarship to study the Classics at Princeton University, and was named salutatorian of his class, delivering his address in Latin, then earning a PhD in classics from Stanford University. His is an engaging story, and an enraging one, because of the obstacles that the U.S. immigration service put in his way. His memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, is being published this week.
Is a musical comedy a good way to tell his story?
Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty, one of the 50 musicals at this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival, is only “inspired” by Padilla Peralta. The team of Noem de La Puente and David Davila take just the bare outlines of his story, changing his name (to Manuel), altering biographical details, and adding a fanciful conceit – that Manuel is going rounds in the boxing ring with the Statue of Liberty herself.
That heavy-handed metaphor might have been enough to sink this show for me.
But as it turns out, this is in some ways a wonderful musical. It dramatizes an important issue using humor and passion and rhythm. The score is a tuneful mix of hip-hop, Latin, glitter-rock, Broadway ballads, sweet lullabies, even some patriotic anthems. The eight-member cast, under the energetic direction of Jose Zayas, has more than its share of standouts.
Shakina Nayfack as the Statue of Liberty is a powerhouse performer with fine comic timing – and something of a towering figure herself, a trans actress whose own story seems a good fit for the stage (and in fact, her autobiographical solo show has been on several.) Her performance does much to make the ringside shtick more tolerable, and she is also used quite cleverly to portray (as the Statue) various types arrayed against immigrants – from a sleazy immigration attorney to the assistant dean of Princeton arguing with the dean against Manuel’s admission because of his immigration status, until the dean ends the argument: “I’m certainly not going to let Harvard get their hands on him.”
Tami Dahbura portrays a character who could not be more different from campy Liberty, Manuel’s mother Mami, but her performance also helps avoid the pitfalls of what could have been an easy stereotype, and her golden-voiced delivery of some of the sweeter melodies in the musical makes the actress feel like a discovery.
Gil Perez-Abraham could be less cute in portraying Manuel in high school, but once the character enters college, he is the persuasive center of the show, a credible leading man.
The scenes basically alternate between the largely realistic story of Manuel and family, and the boxing. Through both we get a glimpse of the life of an undocumented family, and a cursory examination of the issue. In one song, Immigration 101, we are offered a musical rendition of the bureaucratic run-around, with each of the cast representing a different bureaucrat with a different song and dance. In another song, Foreign Is Foreign, the ensemble sings:
Foreign is Foreign
Don’t let any more in
The country’s been worn thin, but they keep on pouring in
But then the individual Americans – from cowboy to doctor to “tea party governor” – are just as likely to make an argument for immigration as against it
Contractor: I’m building houses, I need labor
Hire guys on the corner; not my neighbor
The boxing never quite worked for me; it seemed an inadequate substitute for more fully developing a plot that makes us become immersed in the world of Manuel and his family. But it was put to better use than I had expected. And by the end of Manuel versus the Statue of Liberby, there is a pay-off – clever, funny, surreal – that almost redeems it.