Also see Sharon's review of Great Expectations
And, yes, there is some of that. But Christopher Guilmet plays Haskell, the peddler, in a way that somehow keeps his broken English and comic attempts to communicate (dictionary in hand) from being cloying. And, more than that, Harelik has written Haskell as a complete character. He's not just the stereotypical happy, singing, poor merchant — he makes mistakes; he loses his temper; he sometimes says the wrong thing. Harelik's play is the story of his own grandparents' immigration from Russia to Texas, but it isn't so much of a love letter to his grandfather that he is blind to the man's flaws—and the show is much better for it.
If the show is a love letter to anyone, it's a love letter to Ima and Milton, the local Texas couple who, out of Christian charity, took in the itinerant merchant who couldn't speak enough English to explain that he wanted a place to sleep. They rent him a room at a price he can afford—despite Ima's reservations upon discovering that he's Jewish—and take him under their wing. Milton, the town banker, ultimately goes into partnership with Haskell, loaning him the money to expand his business beyond a small, heavy fruit cart, and enabling Haskell to ultimately become a successful shop owner. Ima and Milton are generous souls, and while they sometimes slip and say something anti-Jewish, it's apparent that they like Haskell and accept him as a friend.
And here is where things start making The Immigrant rise above the jokey poster art. Because as Haskell becomes more accepted by Ima and Milton, he is slowly becoming assimilated into Texas society itself. And when he finally earns enough money to bring Leah, his wife, over from Russia, the contrast couldn't be more stark. Haskell, despite his ever-present accent, now speaks English, dresses like an American, and fits in. Leah is a fragile Russian woman separated from her home, her culture, and her people. Today, we sometimes debate whether America should be a "melting pot," in which all immigrants lose their cultural identity in order to become "American," or whether we should be more of a "tossed salad," in which we retain our original culture heritage while still being part of the overall whole. The Immigrant illustrates the debate with Haskell and Leah, vividly demonstrating what is gained and lost by melting in.
And one other aspect of The Immigrant elevates it—it is a four-character piece. Which is to say: it's intimate. While other characters touch Haskell's life, and are referred to in the show, they don't appear on stage. Forget assimilation; forget language and religious differences; forget all of it. At the heart of The Immigrant are the very complex relationships between these four people. How is Ima's relationship with her husband affected by his refusal to go to church? How does Haskell simultaneously acknowledge the great gifts that Milton has given him and still see himself as his own man? How do people who genuinely care for each other get beyond fundamental issues on which they disagree without destroying their friendship? These are personal struggles that have little to do with the Jewish-immigrant-in-Texas framework, and the musical's exploration of these questions—and refusal to offer easy answers—makes this piece much deeper than "Shalom Y'all."
The songs, by Steven M. Alper and Sarah Knapp, serve the story. One of the best is "Keep Him Safe," a song Ima sings after she learns that some kids have attacked Haskell. Ima, for the first time, looks at her world through Haskell's eyes, and the musicalization of her revelation is pure theatricality. Knapp's lyrics, however, tend to be predictable — you can often hear the rhyme in advance and know exactly where the sentence is going. The show also loses pace a bit in the second act, where a very long sequence covers the birth of Haskell and Leah's children, and a second long scene immediately follows. Both take a bit too long in getting where they're eventually going, although they're quite good when they get there.
The cast is solid overall, with standout work by Joe J. Garcia, who nails every laugh as the amiable Milton. Monica Louwerens has a lovely voice as Leah, but she sometimes falls into stereotype in her characterization. Cynthia Marty's Ima avoids the trap: whenever she seems like a standard, slightly-dotty, church-going Southern woman of her time, Marty gives Ima a spark that says there's something more to her. And Guilmet combines his soaring singing voice of endless hope with a characterization that is harmless on the surface, but has steel beneath.
The Immigrant runs at the Colony Theatre in Burbank through May 4, 2008. For tickets and information, see www.ColonyTheatre.org.
The Colony Theatre Company—Barbara Beckley, Artistic Director — presents The Immigrant. Book by Mark Harelik; Lyrics by Sarah Knapp; Music by Steven M. Alper. Scenic Design by John Iacovelli; Costume Design by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Lighting Design by Don Guy; Sound Design by Drew Dalzell; Set Dressing & Properties Design by MacAndME; Hair & Wig Design by Joni Rudesill; Production Stage Manager Leesa Freed; Public Relations David Elzer / Demand PR. Musical Direction by Dean Mora; Directed by Hope Alexander.