The new musical, The Immigrant, drawn from the nonmusical regional theatre hit of the same name, is getting lots of attention from producers in its world premiere staging by CAP21 at the CAP21 Theater in Manhattan.
The limited run of composer Steven M. Alper and lyricist Sarah Knapp's musical version of Mark Harelik's play (with a libretto by Harelik) ends Oct. 8. Those associated with the four-actor show say there is talk about a future life for the tuner, which earned a love letter of a review from The New York Times. However, there are no immediate plans to move this production, a spokesperson told Playbill On-Line.
Regional theatre directors have also taken a look at The Immigrant in the never-ending search for work that is economical — like the play on which it is based, The Immigrant has a cast of four and one set, the sort of affordable concept nonprofits crave.
At 2 hours and 45 minutes, the musical has struck some observers and critics as overlong for such a fragile and intimate small-cast show. The score is not full of big, conventional show tunes, but ambles through some 30 years of history with folky, prosaic sentiments — suggesting both American folk music and hints of European Klezmer.
Director Randal Myler, who helped nurture the original play into one of the most widely-produced works in American regional theatre in the 1990s, helms the musical, which charts the life of Haskell Harelik (played by Evan Pappas), a Russian Jew who settles in Texas as part of a little-known immigration initiative that took Europeans to Galveston, TX, rather than New York City. Local banker Milton Perry (Walter Charles) and his wife, Ima (Cass Morgan) support Haskell in his early years, and he is able to send for his wife, Leah (Jacqueline Antaramian), from Europe. CAP21 is the nonprofit organization devoted to giving voice to new musical theatre writers and performers in Manhattan (and offering opportunities for other artists as well). It opened the world premiere of The Immigrant — the group's first venture into producing full stagings — Sept. 19 following previews that began Sept. 13.
Pappas is known for Parade and My Favorite Year, Antaramian appeared in Wrong Mountain and Pride's Crossing, Charles had roles in Me and My Girl, Aspects of Love and Wit and Morgan was in Pump Boys and Dinettes, The Capeman and Violet.
Albert Ahronheim is musical director.
The Immigrant was the most-produced play in regional theatres in 1991, and recounts the true story of Haskell Harelik (playwright Harelik's grandfather), a Russian Jew who comes to the United States in 1909 by way of Galveston. As the musical opens, Haskell is peddling bananas from a pushcart. His life is changed forever when he asks Milton and Ima Perry (a small-town Texas banker and his Southern Baptist wife) for a drink of water from their well.
The play, which was sweetened by projections of historical images and family photos, appeared in major regional theatres throughout the country, including Denver Center Theater, The Mark Taper Forum, Meadow Brook Theatre and The Alley Theater. A sequel, The Legacy, has also been produced.
Collaborative Arts Project 21, Inc., has a studio and classroom facility on 18th Street, but inaugurated a new 98-seat space on 28th Street, the CAP21 Theater, at 15 W. 28th Street, on the second floor, for The Immigrant. This is the nonprofit group's first Equity producing effort.
Knapp and Alper, married for 15 years with two produced musicals (Chamberlain and The Library) under their belts met Harelik at the New Harmony Project in Indiana in 1997, and Harelik suggested his hit play as a possible source for a musical.
"I was attracted to it because it was so clearly adaptable," Knapp said. "We search and search for pieces like that. Mark's use of language so often gave clear guidelines to lyrics. Words bounced off the page. You'll see all over the place that I have stolen from Mark."
"And it was emotionally grabbing," said Alper, who has been a musical director for New York City projects for many years. "The material seemed to be ready for expansion in terms of music."
Knapp, who is also a librettist and actress (Broadway's The Scarlet Pimpernel), said the idea of a small-cast show was refreshing for the team following the 30-actor Chamberlain, A Civil War Romance, which was commissioned by Maine State Music Theatre and performed in August 1996.
"We felt immediately that The Immigrant should be a chamber piece," Knapp said. Early on, they quickly dismissed the idea of having crowds of colorful townspeople as characters.
Composer-pianist Alper was actress-singer Knapp's accompanist and they fell in love and married. Their songwriting "evolved" after he broke up with his lyricist. They live in Queens.
The musical adaptation is "very close" to the original play, Knapp said. Musically, Alper said the score has "elements of Klezmer and traditional Jewish folk music, traditional American folk and country elements" and "it's jumbled together."
"You do get a taste of the time and place and where the characters are from," Knapp added, "but it is distinctly Alper."
Alper adds, "There is very little of what you would call pastiche; it's flavored by traditional elements, but hopefully never overwhelmed by it."
Designers are Beowulf Boritt (set), C. David Russell (costumes), Jane Cox (lighting) and Randy Hansen (sound).
Director Myler, linked to Denver Center Theatre Company for 15 years, co created and directed It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues and wrote and directed the current Janis Joplin piece, Love, Janis: The Songs, The Letters, The Soul of Janis Joplin.
Tickets for The Immigrant are $37.50. For information, call Ticket Central (212) 279-4200.
Collaborative Arts Project 21, Inc. (CAP21) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the creation of new work, the development of new talent and the building of new audiences.
According to the mission statement on the group's web site (www.cap21.org) CAP21's goal "is to create programs to achieve substantial and lasting contributions to the future of the arts. Every CAP21 endeavor embraces the following values: collaboration; an exchange between the emerging and accomplished artist; a nurturing support system; an infusion of the traditional with the innovative, and a commitment to serving and cultivating a diverse audience."
Readings, workshops, studio availability, classes and even full productions are now part of the CAP21 mix.
— By Kenneth Jones