The Thursday-night crowd at Ford’s Theatre’s Liberty Smith, a whimsically bratty music about the American revolution, was mostly made up of the middle-schoolers, who would seem to be the show’s target audience. So the authors should probably take note of how restless the crowd grew as soon as the houselights dimmed for a first scene that turned out to be a deliberately awkward (and decidedly off-topic) Civil War-era history pageant.
Nor were the middle-schoolers notably cheered when a graybearded title character showed up to interrupt that pageant claiming to be 127 years old and to know what really happened when young George Washington took an axe to a cherry tree. Hell, had Liberty announced he was a full century younger than 127, he might well have seemed ancient to this crowd. But nevermind. The show’s libretto, filled with jokes referencing Facebook, NASCAR, and a “fair and balanced” town crier named Mr. Fox, is hipper than this ill-advised opening. And the adolescent audience perked right up when Liberty’s younger self arrived, played by a winningly mop-haired Geoff Packard, who makes the title character as bumbling and innocent as his show is long.
Which makes sense. Just a few months ago, Packard was in Shakespeare Theatre’s Candide, playing another titular innocent (albeit a trifle less shaggily), and he brings the same soaring tenor and open-eyed sweetness. He’s all but indefatigable as he charms, aids, and trades quips with a bevy of cartoonish Founding Parental-Units—dueling with a pompous Benedict Arnold (James Konicek), riding for (and to the rescue of) a mead-loving Paul Revere (Richard Pelzman), and sparring with the attractively spunky niece (Kelly Karbacz) of a down-to-earth Betsy Ross (Donna Migliaccio).
The show’s general drift is that without Liberty’s unacknowledged help, none of these historical icons would’ve done what they did in history books—a cute conceit, though one that gets labored in a two-and-a-half hour telling. Happily, the cast is game, the staging passable, and if the pleasantly rousing songs are hampered somewhat by pedestrian lyrics (at one point a character sings of “sleeping in a bed of straws” because “straw” wouldn’t rhyme with “patriotic cause”), my audience didn’t seem to mind much. Mind you, their heartiest laugh came on the line “you shot me in the ass,” so perhaps deft phrasing wasn’t what they were looking for.