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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Harelik's play enjoyed considerable success but it took composer Steven M. Alper and lyricist Sarah Knapp to turn it into a musical that could, like the original play, travel far since it featured just four actors and a small band. The score has some of the dissonance of today's new musicals but is mostly melodious and with touches of Klezmer.
I was sufficiently taken with this pocket opera during a trial run to hope it would find a home where it could reach a larger audience and for a longer run. That hope has now come true. The Immigrant has settled in at the comfortable new theater complex on West 50th Street.
The story is unchanged from the CAP21 trial run four years ago: Harelik's assimilation odyssey begins with his arrival in Hamilton, a small rural town in central Texas. It spans thirty-three years and many changes. When we first meet Haskell (Adam Heller) it's 1909 and he's wearing the tzitzuss and prayer shawl of the orthodox Shtetl Jew and selling bananas for a penny a piece from a pushcart. By the time the lights dim the greenhorn speaks only lightly accented English and is a prosperous department store owner and the father of three sons fighting for their country in World War II.
Unlike immigrants in big Eastern cities, Harelik lacks the camaraderie of a neighborhood teeming with other newcomers and not too surprisingly, when he sends for his Russian sweetheart Leah, (Jacqueline Antaramian) she is less than ecstatic about sharing his life in a place where they'll be the lone Jewish residents. But the true heart of the drama is in the long and complicated friendship between Haskell and Lea and the local banker, Milton Perry (Walter Charles), and his devoutly Christian wife Ima (Cass Morgan). The interplay between these four -- as couples, woman to woman, man to man -- provide the play with both its humor and its conflict (Hitler's rise to power proves the undoing of the merchant and the banker's friendship with an angry blowup sending the isolationist banker storming out of the Harelik home, not even finishing the sabbath blintzes he was enjoying).
Unfortunately in this second viewing some of the book's weaknesses seem to stand out more than they did in the less polished off-off-Broadway production. While "The Sun Comes Up" is still a delightful musical express trip through the birth of the Hareliks' sons, one can't help wondering how the story could also speed past World War I and the great Depression with nary a reference, let alone a song. The timing of that fateful Sabbath dinner is also something of a puzzle. It's apt enough to set it in the Hitler era-- but with the couples this close, why has it taken twenty years for the Perrys to be introduced to the Sabbath ritual and blintzes?
The good news is that Heller, like Evan Pappas at CAP21, inhabits the title role with warmth and has the voice to do justice to his numerous solos and ensemble songs. Jacqueline Antaramian is once again touchingly vulnerable as the immigrant wife who finds the changes she is asked to make too much -- but who perseveres, bolstered by her friendship with the banker's wife who has her own cross to bear in a non-believing husband. Cass Morgan and Walter Charles are terrific as the Texans whose relationship with the Hareliks makes this an all-American story with which anyone can identify. The score remains appealingly diverse with some particularly amusing and charming duets -- like "Changes" in which Milton takes action to help Haskell up the ladder of success and assimilation and "Padadooly" in which Leah and Ima learn about their respective traditions. The scene when Haskell puts aside his grievances to visit the now stroke-impaired banker is still powerfully moving.
The show's current home is large enough to accommodate a more elaborate scenic design but not too large to make the four-member cast look lost or to require the over-amplification currently common to so many musicals. Set designer Brian Webb has enhanced the original stage concept and the gorgeous Texas landscape which serves as a background. Don Darmutzer's exquisite lighting and Willa Kim's true blue to the period costumes further enrich the production values.
Opening at a time when America has been greatly divided, by war and differences between secular and religious constituencies, the "The Comforting Hand of Jesus" reprise comes off as too heavy handed in its appeal to Christian as well as Jewish audiences. Yet, it is heartening to watch this simple story about love and optimism overcoming insecurity and fear, with friendship and decency bringing out our common humanity. Haskell, Leah, Ima and Milton and the music they make may just make you forget the strife and anger outside the theater -- at least the approximately two and a half hours it takes to journey with them from 1909 to the beginning of another war.