Mark Harelik wrote the book of the musical. His hero is Haskell Harelik (Adam Heller), his grandfather, who debarked in Galveston, Texas in 1909 like so many other Jewish refugees from Russia in the early 20th century. Joining Haskell in Texas later is his wife, Leah (Jacqueline Antaramian). People like Haskell and Leah brought their hopes and dreams to America, and this melting-pot country was built on those hopes and dreams. The story of The Immigrant is as simple as legend and as human as frailty. Musicals often fail because their books are flimsy excuses for a string of show tunes, but The Immigrant's greatest strength is its beautifully crafted, emotionally graphic script.
Haskell Harelik is first seen selling bananas for a penny apiece in the small rural town of Hamilton, Texas. Exhausted, he collapses in front of the home of Milton and Ima Perry (played by Walter Charles and Cass Morgan). The banker's wife takes pity on the poor boy; she buys all of his bananas and insists that her skeptical, conservative husband let the immigrant temporarily stay in their house. Open-minded but tough, Milton insists that the boy pay his way. When he does, Milton won't go back on his word -- not even when his wife learns that their new boarder is a Jew and changes her mind about letting him stay. It's a wonderful depiction of a marriage and of human nature: Milton and Ima each give in to their bigotry, only to be shamed back to the side of the angels by the other.
The relationship between Haskell and the Texas banker and his wife is complex and textured. On one level, Haskell becomes their surrogate son; on another, this is a story of giving back to those who have given to you, even as it concedes that there are bound to be resentments between those who give and those who take. That psychodrama is powerfully played out here; a raw, challenging song titled "Where Would You Be?" ratchets up the dramatic tension. The number is sung by Milton to the now prosperous, middle-aged Haskell, who appears ungrateful to the older man. Fierce and uncompromising in its anger and veined with subtext, it's a riveting piece of musical theater.
The Immigrant was originally a straight play (produced in the mid-1980s), and this no doubt helps to account for the solid structure beneath the musical, an earlier version of which we saw during the 2000-2001 season. Certainly, the score enhances the story's emotions, but not to the fullest extent; the music (Steven M. Alper) and lyrics (Sarah Knapp) are largely pedestrian. A variety of musical styles are on display, most prominent among them Klezmer riffs that often segue into more dissonant, unmelodic modern musical theater writing. There is one number, however, that is wonderfully old-fashioned and works like a Swiss watch to move the story forward and reveal character. It's called "Changes," and Milton and Haskell sing it with gusto when the banker helps the ambitious peddler with new ideas to increase his business and with a generous loan to make those ideas a reality.
There are only four people in the cast, and three of them have been with the show at least as far back as the version that we saw three years ago. Only Heller is new to The Immigrant; last time, Evan Pappas played the role to perfection. Heller is a consummate actor who bares Haskell's soul; his singing is strong but not stellar, yet his acting overcomes any vocal shortcomings. Jacqueline Antaramian gives us a sharply defined Leah, but it's Cass Morgan and Walter Charles as the Perrys who ground this production with the extraordinary humanity of their portrayals. These two have been working steadily on stage for decades, not often with the recognition they deserve. The Immigrant shows off their talents to full, glorious effect.
Directed with stylish simplicity by Randall Myler, boasting unobtrusive yet effective set design by Brian Webb and spot-on costumes by Willa Kim, this sweet show is well produced. The Immigrant may not appeal to people who prefer their theater cool and hip, but those who respond to its potent combination of sentiment, craft, and integrity will be moved to tears time and again -- as were we.