Music by David Davila
Lyrics by Noemi de la Puente and David Davila
Directed by Jose Zayas
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Manuel versus the Statue of Liberty” is a powerful new musical that takes considerable risks in exposing the flaws in the United States Immigration System (USCIS). Noemi de la Puente’s engaging book personalizes the “nightmare” of USCIS as a knock-down-drag-out boxing match between a young illegal Manuel (played with a powerful grace by Gil Perez-Abraham) and the Statue of Liberty (played with cloyed playfulness by Shakina Nayfack). This fight symbolizes the larger struggle all illegal immigrants (including those awaiting Green Cards) experience when attempting to gain legal status.
Ironically, the Statue of Liberty represents the “American Nightmare” reminding Manuel that “It’s Against the Law to Be Here Illegally” and doing all she can to defeat Manuel’s spirit and his attempts to become a legal citizen. This is gritty theatre: the Statue is the enemy of freedom not the ally of the immigrant she seems to welcome. Watching Ms. Nayfack portray the “Statue’s” redemptive transformation is cathartic and electrifying.
The system seems designed to make the naturalization process not only difficult but impossible. Manuel came to the United States with his mother and his sister Yolanda (Alicia Taylor Tomasko) who was born in the United States and is therefore a legal citizen. It is Manuel and his Mami (Tami Dahbura) that face deportation if they do not get Green Cards. Manuel is not willing to live in hiding and with the encouragement of his mentor Mr. Walsh (Michael Marotta) he wants to go to Princeton then, upon graduation, to study abroad at Oxford on a scholarship from Princeton. If he leaves the country, he realizes he will not be able to return.
The ensemble cast under Jose Zayas’ impeccable direction skillfully portrays Manuel’s journey from his high school graduation through his decision to turn himself into USCIS authorities. Although things go well for Manuel, they did not go well for the inspiration for this musical Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Despite the requisite happy ending for musical theatre (not all but most), “Manuel versus the Statue of Liberty” remains a scorching critique of immigration policies in the United States and a resounding celebration of the human spirit, the confirmation that “nothing good comes easily,” and the importance of fighting for the values upon which the United States was founded.