Exploring the Jewish-Canadian Immigrant Experience in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

A young couple’s strange, exotic journey from Romania to Halifax takes center stage in this new klezmer folk musical at 59E59.

Ben Caplan as the Wanderer in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.
Ben Caplan as The Wanderer in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.
(© Stoo Metz Photography)

The immigrant experience isn't a stranger to the world of musical theater. The list of shows that address this subject is extensive, including Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, Flower Drum Song, and even Hamilton. Yet despite the presence of different ethnicities, all tell a similar story about people hoping for a better life when they arrive in the United States.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry at 59E59 Theaters, shifts that paradigm a bit. Though the plot is fairly traditional, following the romance of two Romanian Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century (with attendant commentary through song by an omniscient narrator), this "strangers in a strange land" story provides us with a perspective we rarely see in the musical genre: It does not take place in America, but Canada.

More specifically, it takes place inside a gigantic shipping container that dominates the stage (the amazing set is designed by Louisa Adamson and director Christian Barry). When opened, it becomes a cozy coffeehouse-style performance space that feels simultaneously homey and claustrophobic, especially when bedecked with Adamson and Barry's haunting lighting design.

These feelings of hominess and claustrophobia exemplify the plot as well. Chaya (Mary Fay Coady) and Chaim (Chris Weatherstone) meet cute in Halifax while standing on the line to see a doctor; he might have typhus, she might have consumption (turns out, it's just a rash and a cough). Chaya lost her husband in Russia in their travels and hasn't gotten over his death. Chaim, we learn, saw his family killed in a pogrom. Their mutual tragedies bring them together, but love isn't as easy as it may seem, especially when their residual baggage — and a society that doesn't necessarily want them — haunts both of their lives.

Ben Caplan and Mary Fay Coady in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.
Ben Caplan and Mary Fay Coady in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.
(© Stoo Metz Photography)

Coady and Weatherstone, while not necessarily imbued with a huge sense of Yiddishkeit, are warm, believable leading players and instrumentalists, who develop a credible romance despite not always feeling completely comfortable with each other. Their performances perfectly mirror the play that Moscovitch has written and the production that Barry has staged around them, filled with bells, whistles, and a larger-than-life narrator called The Wanderer.

The Wanderer (Caplan) is a Brechtian-style singing narrator who provides commentary through klezmer folk-rock tunes (which he and Barry wrote) and witty, dirty bon mots about feeling out of place in a world that is entirely foreign. The character is a deliciously boisterous leader in a top hat and plum-colored velvet (costumes by Carly Beamish), with a physical persona like Tom Waits and a shrewd, bombastic artistic voice.

Created by the Halifax-based 2B Theatre Company, the story of Chaya and Chaim is inspired by Moscovitch's own great-grandparents, who fled anti-Semitic pogroms in the old country, settled in Canada, and encountered similar marginalization in their new adopted home.

Where the piece falters, though, is in its own sense of place. Moscovitch's script is on the quest for universality ("It's about immigrants and Jews and it's about refugees…but we hope you can see something of yourself in it," The Wanderer says), but it skirts around the show's single most interesting (and different) aspect: its setting.

Why did these Romanian émigrés decide to settle in Canada? What were the difficulties they encountered, besides snow (which is an ongoing joke in the piece) and occasional anti-Semitism? As it stands now, Old Stock feels like a cool first draft of a work that is daring enough to think outside the box but not to really dig deeper.