Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"The Immigrant" (and other Jewish tales)
Dodger Stages, Manhattan
"The Immigrant" was a charming little play when it first surfaced a few years ago. Charming, but also with historic significance. Writer/actor Mark Harelik wrote this piece as a tribute to his grandparents-and indeed it is their story.
Not all Russian Jewish immigrants to this country entered through the port of New York. In fact, at the turn of the century, several benevolent Jewish organizations thought it wiser to deflect the hordes of arriving Jewish immigrants to a southern port. The coastal cities, and particularly New York, could not absorb them, they felt, and could precipitate a wave of anti-Semitism. Hence the Galveston Movement was born, with philanthropist Jacob Schiff playing a leading role.
Mark Harelik's grandfather Haskell was one such immigrant. Landing with other Russian Jews in Galveston, Texas, he set out across the countryside with a pushcart, selling penny bananas. It was in Hamilton (pop. 1,203) that he stopped to ask a couple for water from their well. That drink, and the help of that older Christian couple, changed the course of his life. It was there he settled, thrived, raised his family and ultimately owned the town's department store. A typical Jewish immigrant success story. Only the geography was different.
But now the story has been turned into a musical, having just opened at the Dodger Stages off-Broadway. Does this work? In our view, it does not. The story stood on its own beautifully, in the original form, almost Biblical in feeling. But now, both music and lyrics slow the story without enhancing the tale. The music, granted, is haunting at times, lurking on the edge of an operatic style, but in no way memorable. Lyrics, too, do not rise above the ordinary.
What can be said in its favor is that it is a pocket-musical-small, understated, and tasteful. No overblown production numbers and flashy dancers.The cast of four (Jacqueline Antaramian, Walter Charles, Adam Heller, Cass Morgan), under the direction of Randal Myler, strives to bring the piece to life. And there are touching moments, as when Leah (Haskell's wife) blesses the candles on a Shabbos night with a soft, spiritual chant. But voices generally tend to be harsh, and Antaramian's Leah is too hysterical initially, though she later settles into the role. While the cast generally is capable, one longs for a return to the simple, straight play.
So much for "The Immigrant," for better or worse. But New York is currently offering a number of other shows of interest to Jewish audiences. First, "A Tale of a Tiger" by the Israeli-American theater artist Ami Dayan opens this month off-Broadway. The show, which has been playing at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv for over eleven years, as well as overseas and elsewhere in this country, now comes to New York. It is Dayan's free adaptation of Italian playwright Dario Fo's play, which in turn is based on an ancient Chinese folk tale-truly an international endeavor.
Also opening shortly is Daniel Goldfarb's comedy "Modern Orthodox," featuring top actor Craig Bierko and screen personality Molly Riongwald. The play deals with faith and how it can be relevant in the fast-paced world of New York."Piecework" by Robyn Burland also has an off-Broadway run to mid-December. It is a 1911 love story set against the backdrop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. And finally, the Yiddish theater. Folksbiene (purported to be the oldest continuing running theater in this country) opens at the end of the month with "A Novel Romance," written by Abraham Goldfaden (generally regarded to be the father of Yiddish theater). With a cast of five and three musicians, and mixing satire with burlesque, "A Novel Romance" tells the story of a "modern" woman who seeks a husband. Finally, New York continues with its long-running Jewish shows, "A Stoop on Orchard Street" playing, appropriately, on the lower east side and depicting an immigrant family circa 1910. Also with strong audience appeal is "Picon Pie," which depicts the life of Yiddish theater actress Molly Picon and stars Barbara Minkus. And of course one can see any of numerous New York shows, on and off Broadway, which, in one way or another, reveals a strong Jewish influence.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 21, 2004