According to the press release, Mark Harelik’s original play “The Immigrant” was the most widely produced play in the country in 1991. Its combination of a fascinating and deeply American subject matter and finely wrought characters clearly struck a chord with audiences, and rightly so. The new musical adaptation, however, is a mixed bag. The West Coast premiere at the Colony Theater features vibrant perfs, splendid singing and impressive music, but also tuneless, unmemorable songs and a story whose sense of reality is fractured by the tonal shifts of a musical format.
In 1909, Russian immigrant Haskell (Christopher Guilmet) arrives in the small town of Hamilton, Texas, to start a new life. He begins by selling bananas door-to-door out of a cart, and, in this way, meets banker Milton (Joe J. Garcia) and his wife Ima (Cynthia Marty), who are kind to him.
They rent a room to the young man, and Milton eventually gives Haskell a loan to start a fruit and vegetable business. Haskell then brings his wife Leah (Monica Louwerens) over from Russia. At first she doesn’t see how they can thrive as the only Jewish family in Hamilton, but, as the decades pass, they succeed in making a new life for themselves.
Guilmet gives a charming and dramatically potent perf, and is particularly memorable in his scenes of conflict and regret toward the latter half of the play. His singing voice is strong, used to stirring effect in opening song “The Stars.”
Louwerens is marvelous as Leah, presenting both the woman’s inherent toughness and vulnerability with complete believability. Her singing voice is lovely and powerful, with a ferocious rendition of “I Don’t Want It” and a beautiful treatment of “Candlesticks” being highlights.
Marty is sympathetic and amusing as Ima, emphasizing the character’s basic decency. Garcia is very funny as Milton, but is also equal to the dramatic challenges of the role.
Hope Alexander’s direction gets the most from her actors, and her staging of numbers such as “The Sun Comes Up” adds notably to the show. Dean Mora’s musical direction is very good, and the musicians acquit themselves admirably, but unfortunately they’re in the service of a series of bland, repetitive songs. Sarah Knapp and Steven M. Alper’s score is done in a storytelling style, moving the plot forward during the music, but the result is clunky and resolutely unmelodic.
John Iacovelli’s Texas backdrop is understated and evocative, although the two onstage houses seem needlessly skeletal. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes are vivid and period-appropriate.