'Steerage' is historical proclamation

June 3, 2011.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

This fine effort needs a personal narrative to elevate great music beyond pageantry.

The mythology is well known: In America, streets are paved with gold, land is fertile, food bountiful and freedom palpable. Riding these visions, immigrants have left their homes and ventured toward this shimmering promised land. From roughly 1850 to 1924, European immigrants redefined America's ethnic composition, and its economic and social fabric.

Theater Latté Da has plumbed this experience with "Steerage Songs," a compilation of tunes written by, about and for immigrants who came in this great wave. Woven throughout the music are texts from journalists and historians who documented the phenomenon.

Created by Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard, "Steerage Songs" is best appreciated as pageantry and proclamation. Musically, there is a rich and flavorful stew: folk songs from the Russian Pale, to Italy, Hungary, Scandinavia and the British Isles all articulate dreams for America -- and deep affection for the homeland.

Eleven performers sing and read, backed by five musicians in a show that hits two hours. Laura MacKenzie's pipe and flute renderings instantly convey Scotland and Ireland, while Dennis Curley's warm voice caresses those ballads with a soft brogue. Dirk Freymuth's guitar has a Romany spirit that mixes with Peter Ostroushko's violin and mandolin. Chouinard's accordion and Dale Mendenhall's clarinet, too, exert distinct personalities.

Rothstein's singers are distinguished by beautiful voices, or earthy character. Erin Capello radiates charisma with her readings of songs from Greece and Sweden, Jennifer Grimm stands out with "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor," John Bitterman channels the Jewish cantor's mournful soul and Sasha Andreev displays his Russian resonance. Dylan Fresco sells more than he sings, but he sells well.

If Rothstein and Chouinard want to push forward with "Steerage Songs" -- and they should -- they must address a few things. First, for all the fine effort, there is no story. The narration sounds like a textbook, without personal and emotional investment. A through line about Irving Berlin, the Russian Jew who became one of America's greatest composers, lacks oomph. The music, lovely as it is, needs more eruptive moments. "Yes, We Have No Bananas" gets at that, as do "Oleanna" and "Beautiful Isle of Somewhere."

Lastly, the creators need to edit with an eye toward focus. Less will be more.