“Steerage Song” by Theater Latte Da at the Fitzgerald Theater

June 2, 2011.By Janet Preus, HowWasTheShow.

Theater Latte Da, in partnership with Minnesota Public Radio, has turned its attention to the stories of our immigrant forebears, as told through newspaper reports, speeches, books of the period and the songs distinctive to each culture. The music the immigrants brought with them (and created new in their new home) reflected their unique ethnicities, but through the lyrics we hear shared experiences, regardless of their origins.

Conceived and created by director Peter Rothstein and music director Dan Chouinard, Steerage Song is a staged concert reading, basically, performed by local singers and musicians, clearly chosen with great care for their familiarity with the music and cultures represented. In fact, the ensemble of 11 singers shared 40 songs sung in 18 languages to create with authenticity the experiences of the huge numbers of European immigrants who flooded Ellis Island around the turn of the last century.

Although the singers move little – script in hand – there is plenty to take in visually with the entire back wall of the theater turned into a giant screen for images of the period – dour faces in babushkas, smiling faces waving energetically from the deck of a ship, children’s faces staring curiously into the unseen camera. The images were fascinating and beautifully supported by the music, which stretched from Italy, Ireland, Macedonia, Sweden, Poland and many more countries, to Tin Pan Alley and New York City’s lower East Side – the destination of so many of the immigrants of the period. What brought them together was the hope for a better life in America; what they shared was the very thing that set them apart: the pain of leaving home and arriving in a new land with precious little real information – and (generally) no money.

The title takes its name from the area occupied by the poorest of the passengers on the ships that at one point crowded New York’s harbor, emptying their occupants in droves on Ellis Island, where they might be allowed to complete their journey, or they might be sent back if they were deemed unfit or unhealthy. It was a potentially frightening proposition either way.

The performers made for a real dream team, creating a musical underscore for a larger, less definable experience. Memorable among them was the Ukrainian ballad, “My Mother is at Home,” the Macedonian song called “God Smite Him Who Goes First” (both sung in the original language) and the Irish tune, “The Emigrant’s letter.”

This show would be a wonderful opportunity to generate a discussion with children old enough to be curious about their ancestors. It runs through June 5 at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.

The Ensemble:
Sasha Andreev, Braxton Baker, John Bitterman, Erin Capello, Dennis Curley, Dylan Fresco, Jennifer, Grimm, Jay Hornbacher, Jake Ingbar, Ntalie Nowytski

The Musicians:
Dan Chouinard, Dirk Freymuth, Laura MacKenzie, Dale Mendenhall, Peter Ostroushko