by Brian Sonia-Wallace~
This show had the feeling of community theatre. Now, a key word in that is community, and that’s great. This is well meaning theatre, filled with old-timer subscribers and possessed of a heart of gold. But it also came across as amateurish in many places, with the actors playing as if for a Broadway house of hundreds in the intimate Pico Playhouse, and a lyricist who should never be allowed near a stage again.
From the friendly Director X chatting up his subscribers about their family stories during intermission through the tender final act in which years play out in minutes, this is a show that thoroughly achieves what it sets out to do: to bring together the Jewish community that it serves around stories close to their hearts. I was the youngest person in the theatre by years, but it was evident that the older audience really appreciated the show, and I think the central themes of immigration and cultural assimilation or sharing spoke to all of us.
I have to confess that the first act of The Immigrant grated on me terribly, while I was legitimately moved by the second. In the first, Haskell (Gary Patent), a young Russian Jew, arrives in a small town in Texas where he is taken in by banker Milton and his wife Ima (Anthony Gruppuso and Cheryl David). He spends the act learning English and assimilating into the small town, but much of the minutia of the first hour could have easily been scrapped as mere exposition for the second act. What’s really important here is setting up Haskell’s relationship with the native Texans. The first act is often guilty of telling rather than showing, and the songs have to be heard to be believed. There are such lyrical gems as, “Some days I’m lonely…by myself, alone.” The words ‘night’ and ‘bright’ are rhymed, and there is a song about how to make a banana-selling cart more efficient. The urge to merge gorgeous Yiddish music with the All-American tradition of musicals is a good one, but here the songs march on with a sort of tragic inevitability, freezing the action every five minutes to illustrate nothing more than that this is a musical, darn it, and a musical has songs. Mr. Patent at least is a good singer with the energy to carry the show, but Mr. Gruppuso and Ms. David both seem more comfortable when the piano stops. On top of that, each character is miked to blow out the hearing aids of even the most geriatric theatre-goer, and after a few minutes of satisfactorily chaotic Yiddish-English dialogue, the Russian characters switch to the old Hollywood throwback of heavily accented English standing in the place of another language.
The second act, however, is the true heart of the show, as we see Haskel and his wife Leah (Dana Shaw) re-united and forging a new life in America, coming to grips with what they will take of this new culture and keep of their own. Though the lyrics remain inane (“luck is luck, no matter what,” we learn to our amazement) moments of the act gave me chills. The story follows the four characters from the first act through the years, with songs taking a backseat and serving mainly as a framing device for scenes divided by decades but united by common themes. Particularly effective is a long scene that follows the birth of all three of Haskel and Leah’s children, weaving together themes of tradition, assimilation, aging, and friendship in genuinely funny and dramatic ways. The acting actually improves as the characters age, partly because they are working with more complex material as the characters run up against the intractable problems of religion and politics and work through them in their friendships and marriages. The Immigrant’s second act is really a deep meditation on the themes of taking and giving back that run through every life and define relationships.
Acting in The Immigrant is patchy. Mr. Patent is a satisfactory everyman, while Ms. Shaw, as his wife, spends the first act just making sad noises before maturing into a real presence in the second. Mr. Gruppuso both looks and (less fortunately) sings just like the blustery banker he plays, while Ms. David spends almost the entire show making faces at the audience but manages to be the emotional heart of the show in spite of it. The acting is consistently too big for such a small house, with every movement exaggerated to play to an imaginary third-tier balcony and many of the jokes so intent on making sure we know they’re funny that they come across as distractingly self-conscious. I have to give credit to costume designer Michèle Young for making each character look their part, and also to J. Kent Inasy’s lighting, which was consistently good. Kurtis Bedford’s set was effective as various locales, though the scene changes took long enough that I had to wonder if there might be a more minimalist, less Broadway way to stage the show. Howard Teichman’s directing was adequate, if a bit static, but his real talent was on display at intermission as he charmed half the audience with talk of family history and the play’s relevance today.
In the end, The Immigrant stands as a piece of community theatre with more substance and originality than most, but still has a ways to go to be up to the standard of professional musicals.
The Immigrant is performed Thursday through Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm, May 26-July 15, 2012.
Pico Playhouse is located at 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064.
Ticket prices: $35 general; $33 seniors; $28 students with I.D.
Reservations online at www.wcjt.orf or by phone at (323) 860-6620.