In its original dramatic form, Mark Harelik’s tender tribute to his Jewish grandfather, a Russian emigrant who bypassed Ellis Island to settle in rural Texas in 1909, “The Immigrant” has made multiple appearances on the regional theater circuit since 1985. Having efficiently retooled this property as a compact, travel-worthy musical, current producers probably would love to send it back on the road. But for all the tech superiority of the production package, this sentimental tuner is no barn burner — and its simplistic message about loving one’s border-breaching neighbor might not go over well in today’s nasty times.
In his heart-tugging program note, Harelik declares his story-telling mission: to render “worthy and meaningful and immortal” the “invisible lives” of the unsung forebears of this nation of immigrants. Translated into theatrical parlance, that means painting an iconic portrait of Haskell Harelik (Adam Heller), who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe in 1909 and made his way to Hamilton, Texas, a farming community with lots of wide open spaces — and not a Jew in sight.
Against all odds, Haskell thrives in this Christian community, befriended by local banker Milton Perry (Walter Charles), who admires his enterprising spirit, and Milton’s saintly wife, Ima (Cass Morgan), who takes the young man into the Perry household and treats him like a surrogate son.
Although the industrious greenhorn is quick to learn the capitalist ropes — turning his pushcart fruit business into a thriving dry-goods store over the course of a single song (“Changes”) — Haskell fails to notice he has let his religion fall by the wayside.
Haskell’s spiritual lapse does not go unnoticed, however, by his wife, Leah (Jacqueline Antaramian), precipitating a domestic crisis (“I Don’t Want It”) when she arrives from the old country. But by the time Leah has given birth to three sons (“The Sun Comes Up”), she and Haskell are solid citizens whose religious beliefs are respected by their Southern Baptist friends and neighbors.
It takes more than one song, though, to resolve the rupture when Haskell and Milton quarrel over the U.S.’ restrictive immigration policies during Hitler’s pogroms. But this crisis of friendship also is repaired, in an uplifting ending confirming, “God is there in the dark … lighting our way.”
The author’s affirmative message couldn’t be clearer. The problem is, it was just as clear in his original play and musicalizing the story adds nothing but wallpaper sound and mind-numbing lyrics. Even in full voice, pro singer-thesps like Morgan and Charles — and the interestingly offbeat Antaramian — are only reiterating in song thoughts and emotions already established through polished dialogue and good acting.
While Heller works harder than a cart horse as Haskell, the character is one of those simplistically outlined heroes who quickly wear out their welcome (especially when pressed to drive home lyrics like, “Don’t settle for the moon/If you wanna reach a star/You gotta make changes/If you wanna go far.”)
The show benefits from helmer Randal Myler’s spiffy production. But any number of shows might benefit from Willa Kim’s gorgeously detailed costumes and Don Darnutzer’s razor-sharp lighting — not to mention Paul Huntley’s character-defining hairstyling. There’s an abundance of talent and craft on view here. Too bad it’s wasted.