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Chicago by John Olson

The Immigrant

Also see John's review of A Wedding

The Immigrant
Aaron Serotsky, Craig Spidle, and Hollis Resnik
On December 19, 2004, thanks to a feature in the New York Times, the topic of the day among theatre fans is the epidemic of Broadway stars missing performances. Though there are things Chicago theatergoers may envy about the New York scene, this is an area in which we can enjoy some smug superiority. We have our own "stars" in Chicago, but for a variety of reasons performer absences are not an issue here. This was especially fortunate for me the night as I saw Chicago's first lady of the musical stage, Hollis Resnick, display her acting and vocal chops to full advantage in The Immigrant [see John's interview with Ms. Resnick]. I don't think it would have nearly as satisfying an evening without her performance.

The joint production of Northlight and the Arizona Theatre Company shares the same director and some of the same creative team as the recent Off-Broadway production, but an entirely different cast. The story, with book by actor/writer Mark Harelick (The Light in the Piazza ), based on his play, music by Steven M. Alper and lyrics by Sarah Knapp, concerns Harelick's grandfather, Haskell Harelick. Haskell was a Russian Jew who escaped the pogroms by emigrating to Texas in 1909. He was one of some 10,000 Jews who did so under the "Galveston Plan," which encouraged eastern European Jews to settle in the southwest rather than the northeastern U.S. The musical is a series of vignettes covering about 30 years in the lives of Haskell, his wife Leah, and Milton and Ima Perry, the local banker and his wife who help them get established in Hamilton.

While The Immigrant is illuminating as a story of an immigrant family's integration into a new society and educational about a lesser-known thread of Jewish-American history, it works for me primarily as a story of friendship. When Haskell first meets the Perrys, he's selling bananas for a penny apiece and desperately needs their help to survive. Later in their 30-year friendship it becomes apparent the Perrys need the Harelicks' companionship as dearly. The Harelicks are a particular source of comfort for Ima after Milton suffers an apparent stroke late in his life.

The musical's resonance for me more as a lesson in friendship than as an insight into Jewish-American experience may have something to do with my gentile ethnicity, but I'm giving more credit to the performances of Ms. Resnick and Craig Spidle as Ima and Milton Perry, as well as to Harelick's writing. Together, they create fully realized characters and never stoop to employ stereotypes of bankers, Southern Baptists or Texans. When the action begins, the Perrys are "empty nesters" - they've lost one son to an unnamed accident or illness while another son has left home permanently and is alienated from the family. Their "Christian charity" leads them to help the desperate, non-English speaking peddler Haskell and take him in as a boarder, but it's apparent they soon appreciate him as a new member of the household. Milton quickly recognizes Haskell's good business instincts and helps him turn his pushcart business into a thriving dry goods store. Milton and Ima occasionally betray some of the prejudices one might expect from Americans of this era, but their moral values, general decency and need for companionship enable them to respect and value the friendship of Haskell and Leah, who Haskell brings to America after he establishes his business.

Spidle and Resnick give sensitive and understated portrayals that detail the conflicts inside their characters as they learn to overcome their prejudices and accept the immigrants. While Spidle can kindly be described as a "singing actor" who's unlikely to ever record a solo album, he's a good one. The piece features several sequences of musicalized dialogue and dialogue-like songs in which Spidle and his cast-mates move seamlessly between sung and spoken words. Ms. Resnick has a voice to fill the room and gets some opportunities to use it, particularly in an eleven o'clock number sung after Milton's death.

Perhaps because Harelick was writing about his grandparents, he seems to have been shy about giving Haskell and Leah too much shading. Haskell is ever charming, even cute, but doesn't show much in the way of character flaws, other than perhaps a tendency to be too accommodating and desirous of fitting in. When Leah explains to the Perrys that the Jews were led out of Israel because they were God's chosen people, Haskell quickly adds "there were fewer people then. Maybe it wasn't so hard of a choice." When he later engages in an argument with Milton over the limits of Jewish immigration imposed by the U.S. in the 1930s, Haskell is so adamant in his position his friendship with Milton ends over it. Harelick insufficiently prepares us for this confrontation and it seems quite out of character. Leah progresses from a scared and whiny immigrant into a confident American mother and housewife (albeit one with a heavy Yiddish accent even after 30 years), but there's not a great amount of detail in her character, either. As the Haskells, Aaron Serotsky and Ana Sferruzza give solid and likable performances, but it's the Perrys who command our attention.

Alper's score is a sort of hybrid of modern classical with show music. While it has a predominantly contemporary sound, he still evokes the feeling of the time and place of the action. Additionally, the Harelicks' music has a strong eastern European flavor while the Perrys are given music that has a hint of Texas country in it. It's accessible and enjoyable if not quite catchy, and it effectively heightens the emotions of the piece, particularly in the soliloquies of Ima, Haskell and Leah. (Milton doesn't have a soliloquy, but then again, he appears to lack the self-doubt that would provoke one.) Alper's sophisticated score, though, is not matched by the pedestrian lyrics of Sarah Knapp, which offer few insights and never manage to rhyme in more than predictable single syllables at the end of a line.

Randal Myler's production makes the four-character piece feel bigger than it is, through the period costumes of David Kay Mickelson and the simple but clever sets of Ralph Funicello, neither of whom had these responsibilities for the Off-Broadway production. The scenic design uses frames to suggest the homes of the Perrys and the Harelicks as well as Haskell's dry goods store. The frames are set against a golden-brown painted backdrop that evokes the open spaces of the Texas plains.

The Immigrant is a modest piece but a heartfelt and sincere one. It shows how, in a small town like Hamilton, one doesn't have the luxury of excluding potential friends from one's life on the basis of ethnic or religious differences. It's a message that may be true in a small town like Chicago as well.

The Immigrant continues through January 9, 2005 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets are available by calling (847) 673-6300 or online at www.northlight.org. Performance times are Tuesday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday matinees at 1:00 p.m. (no performance January 5), Wednesday evenings at 8:00 p.m., Thursday and Friday evenings at 8:00 p.m. (no performance December 24), Saturday matinee at 3:00 p.m. on January 8, Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m., and Sunday evenings at 7:00 p.m. (no evening performance on January 9).


Photo: Tim Fuller

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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