Immigration musicals seldom come small: Ragtime, Rags, even Fiddler on the Roof are large shows about large subjects. How much bigger - emotionally, at least - can a story be than when it's about a person or a group being uprooted from life and facing the daunting prospect of starting over from scratch? And how small can a musical be and still successfully tell such a story?
As if daring to answer that question, up has sprung The Immigrant at Dodger Stages. With a book by Mark Harelik, who based it on his play of the same name about his own grandfather, and a score by Sarah Knapp (lyrics) and Steven M. Alper (music), this is a surprisingly ambitious show: It sets out to prove that one immigrant's tale, however atypical, can be boiled down to only a handful of characters whose interactions will form a suitable foundation for a full-length musical.
Unfortunately, lofty ambitions and good intentions are not by themselves guarantors of success, and The Immigrant has little else to thrive on. Whatever a musical's size, whether featuring four performers (as here) or 40, it must earn whatever expansiveness it possesses and must need its music. This is a show that fulfills neither requirement completely; it's always intriguing, sporadically moving, and almost never truly compelling.
The story focuses on a Russian Jew who escapes the pogroms of his native country in 1909, comes to the United States, and settles in Hamilton, Texas. That man, played here by Adam Heller, is reluctantly taken in by Milton and Ima Perry (Walter Charles and Cass Morgan), who help him derive a new, Americanized name - Haskell Harelik - and help him parlay his small banana cart into a thriving businesses. Soon, Haskell is able to bring his wife Leah (Jacqueline Antaramian) to join him so they can start their life - and a family - in America.
A number of other themes are woven into the story: Haskell and Leah struggle with how to be fully American while not turning their backs on their Jewish backgrounds; Ima struggles with getting Milton to accept the faith that's so important to her; and Milton and Haskell eventually grow together, and then apart as the years pass and world events open great fissures between disparate cultures who have learned a fragile tolerance.
But despite these wisps of promising story, this is the miniature history of two families and the bonds they form together; this isn't a show about many greater cultural ideas. Haskell and Milton bitterly argue about Nazis and Haskell's responsibility to his own people for a significant portion of the second act, but that's an aberration, one of the few times anyone in this show finds an event or emotion truly big enough to sing about.
Otherwise, the show's rampantly intimate nature makes it a rather unmusical musical. There are a few notable exceptions in the score: Leah's lengthy, searching solo "Candlesticks," sung as she ponders her commitment to her faith; Ima's searing second-act lament examining her religious beliefs in the face of death; and Milton's unleashing of violently confrontational points of view on Haskell in "Where Would You Be?" Antaramian, Morgan, and Charles all sing and act with considerable conviction, and put over these songs - as well as their numerous, lesser numbers - extremely well.
Haskell is less effectively musicalized, and the character takes part in a dozen different songs without ever really making himself known. Only the harsh "No Place to Go" near evening's end seems a true exploration of him, and it does provide Heller with the one dynamic dramatic opportunity his role otherwise lacks; it's one of the show's few thrilling moments. Heller works feverishly hard, and is innately likeable enough to ingratiate us to Haskell without much help from Alper and Knapp's songs.
The musical void of Harelik is a handicap from which the show can't completely recover, though many of the songs - an eclectic mix of Eastern European and turn-of-the-century American stylings, under Kimberly Grigsby's vivid musical direction - are attractive, though the lyrics tend to border on the simplistic. The physical production is fine - Brian Webb's southern-tinged sets, the costumes by Willa Kim depicting period finery for the Perrys and the rags-to-semi-riches story of Haskell, and Dan Darnutzer's lights are all suitably evocative - but it's not enough. Nor is Randal Myler's sluggish and sometimes awkward direction; Myler never finds enough energy to smoothly propel the show from beginning to end.
There might just not be enough energy to find. Not every play needs to be a musical, and the songs frequently intrude on Harelik's solidly constructed book scenes rather than enhance them; that can't result in a satisfying book musical. While there's never a question that Knapp, Alper, and especially Harelik have written The Immigrant from their hearts, the show's impact too often dissipates before it can reach into ours.