Myler Directs NYC Reading of Immigrant Musical May 19-20; Cass Morgan and Adam Heller Sing

News   Myler Directs NYC Reading of Immigrant Musical May 19-20; Cass Morgan and Adam Heller Sing
The musical version of the smash regional play, The Immigrant, which goes by the same name, gets Manhattan readings May 19-20 at the Lamb's Theatre with the same cast seen in hit 2002 engagements in Denver and Miami.

Hello Entertainment (Tony Adams/David Garfinkle) and Lamb's Theatre Company (Carolyn Rossi-Copeland) produce the reading. Randal Myler directs (as he did the Off-Broadway world premiere in 2000). Kimberly Grigsby (The Full Monty) is musical director.

The cast of the intimate musical about European Jews transplanted to Texas in the early 20th century includes Adam Heller (as Haskell Harelik), Jacqueline Antaramian (as Leah Harelik), Walter Charles (as Milton Perry) and Cass Morgan (as Ima Perry).

The Immigrant book is by Mark Harelik (based on his smash 1985 play, which was inspired by his grandfather's story), with lyrics by Sarah Knapp and music and orchestrations by Steven M. Alper.

The industry presentations are 7 PM May 19 and 2 PM May 20 at the Lamb's Theatre (upstairs).

In New York in 2000, the sold-out Off-Broadway run of The Immigrant, produced by CAP21, got an encouraging review from The New York Times, but the run was so limited and seats so scarce that it was hardly noticed by the producing community, Myler previously told Playbill On-Line. *

The Immigrant, a musical about roots, went back to its own beginnings Jan. 24, 2002, when Denver Center Theatre Company — the nonprofit that nurtured the source play, also called The Immigrant — opened the musical's post-New York regional premiere. The DCTC production moved to Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse in March 2002.

More than 15 years ago, in collaboration with director Randal Myler, playwright Mark Harelik wrote a play, The Immigrant: A Hamilton Family Album, about his European Jewish forebears settling in Texas rather than the more Jewish-populated New York City in the 1900s. In 1985, DCTC gave the four-actor play — a show written in the span of about nine months, said Myler — its world premiere. It would become one of the most produced titles in regional theatres over the next decade and would spawn a sequel. Now, the characters sing.

Myler staged the original play in 1985 and the CAP21 produced New York City world premiere of the musical in 2000.

The Denver musical cast included Heller (making his DCTC debut) as immigrant Haskell, Jacqueline Antaramian (DCTC's 1933 and Life is a Dream) as wife Leah, Walter Charles (Off-Broadway's Wit) as Texas banker Milton and Cass Morgan (Beauty and the Beast) as Southern Baptist wife Ima (both making their Denver Center debuts). All but Heller appeared in the Off Broadway run of The Immigrant in 2000. Evan Pappas was Haskell in New York. Heller appeared on Broadway in A Class Act and in the York Theatre Company's Merrily We Roll Along.

The Immigrant (both play and musical) recounts the true story of Haskell Harelik, 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 for a drink of water from their well.

The fruit peddler's grandson turned out to be actor playwright Mark Harelik. The original play's production in 1985 was sweetened by projections of historical images of Hamilton, TX, and family photos. The work appeared in major regional theatres throughout the country, including The Mark Taper Forum, Meadow Brook Theatre and The Alley Theater.

What's new since the musical's 2000 premiere in New York?

"There has been a lot of work," Myler told Playbill On-Line in early 2002. "The three of them have worked very hard to nip and tuck. It's never gonna be a short show because of the time that is spanned, but they've done great work tightening it up."

No songs were added or fully cut since New York (where running time was almost three hours), but some songs were "halved," Myler said.

What made The Immigrant such a hit in 1985?

"It's a very small story of one family," Myler said. "But it's very universal." Myler said when the show played Los Angeles, people would show up at the stage door saying, "This is the story of my grandfather, too, but he's Korean."

It's wrong to try to make the play too sentimental, and that's been avoided in the musical, too, Myler said. The Christian Texans and the Russian Jews of the tale are serious-minded, hardworking people who do not easily trust or let go of their traditions. "It's very seductive to make the old couple kindly and the immigrant too cute, and it becomes a syrupy story, but that doesn't work," Myler observed.

What's been the challenge of directing the musical version?

"For me," Myler said, "it's clearing my head [of the old show]. I co-conceived the original play with Mark. The fun for me is to see it as a musical and to hear underscoring and not fight it, and to see it didn't need slides [visual elements which were part of the original production]."

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 told Playbill On-Line. "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."

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