A New Musical
Book by Mark Harelik
Lyrics by Sarah Knapp
Music by Steven M. Alper
CAP21 Theatre / 15 West 28th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

Considering how traditional "The Immigrant" is on many levels, and how familiar the ground it treads, there is a hell of a lot of fresh air blowing through the theatre.

The Jewish immigrant experience has been musicalized before, most notably on Broadway with the cult favorite "Rags" (Stein, Strouse and Schwartz). Though its authors have kept tweaking the show (its latest incarnation, called "definitive" by its lyricist, is currently [September/October 2000] at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre). I’ve always felt it a perfectly okay musical, but one compromised at the core—a very respectable flawed thing that can only be made into a better very respectable flawed thing. (Ironically, the Philly production is reviewed this late September week in these cyber-pages, and our critic, Claudia Perry feels quite differently. Click on the link below.) What has always limited "Rags", it seems to me, is that it aims to celebrate the archetypal immigrant experience, that of the escapees from Russian oppression who arrived at Ellis Island and variously made their way in New York, pursuing and personalizing the freedom Lady Liberty represents—even as they discovered a dark side here too: sweat shops, prejudice, dirty politics, etc. It’s compelling, certainly, but it’s also familiar—we know what those journeys are because within the context, they’re schematic…and for all the conventions of musical theatre, it pays to keep in mind that what the majority of successful post-War book musicals do is avoid archetype, at least as regards the hero, the hero’s quest, the milieu and the outline of the tale. Sweeney, Quixote, Anna, Adams, Molina, Dolly—none of them is like anyone else. And when the best musical theatre doesn’t eschew archetype, it redefines the iconography. Who comes to mind when you hear the expression "stage mother"? And then there’s Tevye the milkman. I think it’s significant that his story leads up to his becoming an immigrant…but we don’t follow him to America; he’d be a lot less interesting there: once he’s made that last break with tradition, that decision to leave Anatevka, his dramatic journey is done.

Obviously there’s no "immigrant" rule for musicals. The only rule is that you have to avoid being prosaic, and that your lead character has to be starkly individualistic. A Russian-Jewish immigrant emerging through the Ellis Island gateway is one among thousands. And yet who’s to say that his story shouldn’t be musicalized. Isn’t he a fellow with a dream? Aren’t his passions large? So—how do you distinguish him from all the others just like him?

Well—what if you take away those thousands?

And remove Ellis Island?

And make your hero the first to explore what is, for him, virgin territory?

In a land where there are no Jews at all? Where the very notion of Jews, unlike in a metropolitan area, is utterly new. No, worse than new. Foreign.

Say, Texas?

The first Jew in Galveston, Texas.

Now what’s going to happen?

See what happens when you remove the familiar? Suddenly the immigrant experience loses its historical predictability. ("1776" did the same thing in reverse, by top-loading so many surprising [and true!] personal characteristics into the Continental Congress that we realized their universe wasn’t familiar at all—in great measure, this among other things helped create the suspense around the occurrence of a well-known historical inevitability.)

Now, as it turns out, there are a number of interesting facts. According to a program note written by "The Immigrant"’s librettist, Mark Harelik—adapting his own play of the same title and writing (or so it is implied by the character names) about his own grandparents—Galveston, Texas was known as "The Ellis Island of the West," and became so as part of a movement to relieve the burden on the New York gateway. But how many of us know that? And even if we did…

As for the piece’s nominal hero, Haskell Harelik (nominal because though he is the driving force, the stage time is divided pretty equally among the cast of four), whether you view him as a larger-than-life musical hero or not (a case can be made for both, and this being a small musical, he needn’t be, so long as he’s distinctive—which he is)…his experience cannot be defined as archetypal…except that, as the first to be in his position, he defines the archetype.

Described briefly, the show tells the tale of Haskell (Evan Pappas) selling bananas off a cart, tired, hungry, dirty and about to pass out, when he comes upon the home of the local bank owner, Milton Perry (Walter Charles) and his wife Ima (Cass Morgan). Haskell desperately needs water and a place to kip for the night. She takes pity on Haskell, Milton adds his own grudging hospitality to the mix and before long, Haskell is boarding in their spare room. But he earns his keep and insists on paying rent—curmudgeonly Milton amuses himself by setting it far lower than Haskell’s offer (he never says it directly, but it’s clear he doesn’t need the money and admires Haskell’s determination to do things honorably)—and soon after that, the Perrys are helping Haskell expand his business. And—though they don’t know it—helping him bring his wife Leah (Jaqueline Antaramian) over from Russia too. The rest of the story follows these two couples, and their unlikely, rich, touching and unusual friendship over the next three decades.

Now there’s something else the piece does, and for all my analytical faculties, it’s a feature that defies easy explanation as to why it works—and it works spectacularly: It tells its tale with relatively little plot conflict. As the above implies, there is no antagonist, per se. To be sure, there is plenty of dramatic tension, but almost all of it is episodically intimate (E.g. Milton calls Haskell into his office to discuss his future; Leah and Haskell argue about what it means to keep their faith in a prejudiced American town, etc.) or internal (E.g. Milton quietly struggles to overcome his own prejudice, Ima agonizes over her husband’s unwillingness to put his soul in Jesus’ hands, etc.). And yet the piece never suffers from a lack of momentum—you don’t always know where it’s heading, but you know at all times that it’s heading somewhere confidently and with purpose.

Crucial to that is the skill with which Sarah Knapp has chosen her song moments. For a lyricist who is really just beginning to court the mainstream, and who has (to my knowledge) been developing her craft outside the usual channels, she has shaped and structured her songs with truly astonishing maturity. Composer Steven M. Alper matches this sophistication with melodies, arrangements and orchestration (for a band configured to evoke a Klesmer sensibility, even when playing in the Western sandbox) that add musical wit and heart to the verbal. (For those who care about such things, the communion between composer and lyricist is curiously unhurt by the fact that the two are married.)

If there are any carps about the score, they are small. Ms. Knapp’s craft is meticulous, but she might, next time out, demand a bit more of herself with freshness and intricacy of rhyme (that said, she stays afloat on freshness of imagery, originality of idea and clarity of storytelling, which is more important). As for Mr. Alper…next time out he may demand a bit less of himself—in this regard: the music’s accompaniment figures are frequently too-musicianly, perversely over-complicated and art-songy when a number would be better served by something simple and foursquare. And this too is curious, because he clearly has the instinct for mainstream vocabulary—the melodies riding above the accompaniments are terribly direct, with high profiles and hooky title lines, and likewise uncongested harmonies implied. (That said: Alper is too sure a hand to be inaccessible—this is a lovely score, not impenetrable, just dense—but should "The Immigrant" move, as it deserves to, he might consider giving the arrangements and orchestrations one more pass, here and there at least, being a little more selective about where he does and does not max-load the ear with information.)

Under the direction of Randal Myler, the cast of four emerges as definitive. Evan Pappas’s Haskell is both vulnerably innocent and determinedly adult. Jaqueline Antaramian’s Leah is a force of complex soulfulness and unexpected moods. Cass Morgan, the very essence of country warmth, was born for the role of Ima…and as for Walter Charles’s Milton…Where the hell has he been all these years? He has a commanding presence and a fine instrument, but most of his past performances have been little more than proficient and reliably professional. Whereas here he has no trouble letting us in on the roiling cauldron of true feeling under the surface of his character’s reserve. It’s as if the role combined with his own being for some kind of astonishing chemical reaction. One can only hope that this is not just a fluke, but a turning point and a breakthrough for him.

It would certainly, happily, match the musical’s own bench mark, as a turning point and breakthrough for what the small musical can do, for the subject matter it explores, and for its authors.

Even if (heaven forfend) "The Immigrant" fails to find an open-ended berth in New York, I daresay it needs but an album and a stock-and-amateur deal to thrive, given its size and universal humanism. I even, seriously, think regional productions of this one may do some great good in breaking down the walls of ethnic intolerance. Owing to its unique combination of elements and the ease with which it can be inexpensively produced, it may well reach those who really need to see it.

Like Haskell himself, "The Immigrant" ought to do quite well in this country…

Go to Claudia Perry's Philadelphia review of "Rags"
Go to David Spencer's Bio
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