September 28th, 2013Written by: John Olive Published by: www.howwastheshow.com
What a grand adventure!
To pack your belongings into a few small suitcases and then, traveling alone or perhaps with your wife and children, to say good-bye – Permanently! Never to see them again! – to your friends and family in the old world. To take passage in the fetid steerage hold of a west-bound steamer, headed for a New World, not knowing what it might hold. Poverty? Unimagined opportunity? Death?
This is, one might easily argue, the essence of the American experience. We’ve never really lost that immigrant optimism. We believe fervently in transcendence, the idea that we can transform ourselves into something greater than what we are now. There is a fluidity to American life that doesn’t exist in other nations. Yes, of course, I know that we are bound by class, by race, by age, by economic status. But still: we believe that greener pastures are here. Somewhere. Perhaps just over that hill. We may not get there, but certainly our children will.
And still they come, from Latin America, from Africa, from Southeast Asia. We live in the land of immigrants.
This “immigrant essence” is celebrated, with great effectiveness, in Steerage Song (Theater Latté Da, performing in the Lab Theater). This musical follows a group of immigrants as they board a U.S.-bound steamer in Europe, travel across the vast ocean, to Ellis Island, settling in New York’s teeming Lower East Side (or, as it’s known today, la Loisaida). They are all Europeans and if your forebears arrived here chained into a slave ship, or in a tramp steamer from Hong Kong, you may have a different perspective. Still Steerage Song has something to say about American identity, something significant, and it applies no matter who our “crossing ancestors” were.
Besides, Steerage Song is filled with fabulous music and marvelous texts, performed expertly by lavishly talented actor/singers. It’s universally enjoyable.
There’s no plot to speak of. A few of the immigrants – e.g., the Irishman (Dennis Curley), the Jew (Bradley Greenwald) – do reappear. One of the travelers, played delightfully by young Alec Fisher, grows up to be the great Irving Berlin. But these are the exception; for the most part the people in Steerage Song are “uber-immigrants,” archetypes transmuting their stories into lovely music. The cast, to a person, thrills. They conduct themselves with restraint, grace, poise, relying on their presence and pure talent. Lovely.
Steerage Song is constructed entirely from “found material,” folk songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes. The kind of music our great-great grandparents might have played on the spinet piano in the parlor. I recognized a few – “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “The Beautiful Isle Of Somewhere.” But mostly the music was a revelation. There are speeches taken from newspapers, rousing political speeches, memoirs. All this wealth is beautifully assembled by… someone. I imagine that director/Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein is the main person of interest. The show is gorgeously designed and the music (Dan Chouinard, music director) is exquisite.
Next up at Latté Da: All Is Calm, the theater’s annual, and effective, Christmas show, in the Pantages.
For more info about reviewer John Olive, please visit his website.