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Theater Review:

‘Immigrant’ is worth sticking with

April 23, 2008|By Mary Burkin

“The Immigrant,” in its Los Angeles premiere as a new American musical at Burbank’s Colony Theatre, runs solid like a locomotive in the first half, but loses steam after intermission.

The play first arrived in the Los Angeles area back in the 1980s as a very successful nonmusical. Playwright Mark Harelik had written the true story of his grandfather Haskell, a Russian Jew who’d fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia in the early 20th century. Haskell finds himself alone, penniless and selling bananas out of a cart on a dry Texas day in the middle of a Baptist county, speaking nothing but Yiddish.

His chance meeting with Ima and Milton Perry teaches him that the term “Christian Charity” means more than a puff of hot Texas air. A little tolerance, kindness, business sense and backbreaking work goes a long way. Soon Haskell has enough money to bring over his wife Leah, who is shocked by the isolation and strangeness of everything she sees.

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In this land with no temples and no rabbis, Haskell asks Leah, “Who says we can’t wander to Texas and rest for a while?” Within a few years, Haskell’s dry goods store has flourished, and he finds himself raising three happy and healthy boys in the middle of Gene Autry country.

Fifty years ago, profits from musicals depended on the number of songs it featured that could live outside the play. Millions of people around the world can hum along with the song “Whistle a Happy Tune,” but most of them couldn’t tell you that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it for “The King and I.”

As a musical, “The Immigrant” has one exquisitely lovely ballad (“The Stars”) that could stand alone anywhere. Much to the credit of lyricist Sarah Knapp and composer Steven M. Alper, “The Immigrant” also has a lot of very story-specific songs that charm and enlighten while keeping the story line moving at a livelier clip than the original nonmusical version, even if you can’t hum them on the way home.

The second act, however, has a few too many show-specific songs that tend to slow the story down instead of enlightening it. What would otherwise be brief and touching in five lines of dialogue, unnecessarily becomes a five-minute production number. Overall, though, “The Immigrant” is worth sticking to through the end.

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