September 29th, 2013Written by: Renee Valois Published by: Pioneer Press
There's a new show in town that takes us on a journey through the past with repercussions in the present. Because immigration reform is a hot-button topic, "Steerage Song" is timely, even though it covers the long-ago years of 1840-1924. In that golden age of immigration to America, as many as a million people arrived on our shores each year.
Created by Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard of Theater Latte Da, the production features dozens of immigrant songs -- in a tapestry of languages with English translations -- that capture the fears and hopes of the travelers. Songs are interspersed with spoken passages taken from a variety of sources, such as a speech by Calvin Coolidge and writings by Mother Cabrini (Patron Saint of Immigrants) and Robert Louis Stevenson.
There is no strong plot, but we follow a group of immigrants as they bid farewell to their homelands and families, make the difficult sea voyage, arrive in New York Harbor, pass through Ellis Island, adjust to life in the city's Lower East Side and try to find success in the New World.
The only named characters are Moses, portrayed by Bradley Greenwald, and his son, Israel, played by Alec Fisher. They anchor the thread of the play as it moves from Europe to North America, with help from the rest of the cast of nine. Israel's surprising true-life trajectory adds satisfying dimension to the story as it progresses.
We get a sense of how extraordinary it was for so many people to voyage so far with so little -- and it reminds us that our country is entirely a land of immigrants. This provides a sharper lens with which to view the question of immigration today. How open or closed should our borders be -- and what does that say about us as a people?
Director Peter Rothstein does a beautiful job of connecting the songs and evoking emotion, with graceful moments of synchronized candle lighting, a model boat slowly sailing across a wood plank, tidbits of Irish and Eastern European dance, and the cast freezing in midstride to give the spotlight to a single animated singer.
Music Director Dan Chouinard leads a talented band of musicians from the back of the stage. Laura MacKenzie's flutes and pipes are especially poignant on Celtic melodies. There are charming tunes and heartbreaking songs in foreign tongues, as well as familiar pieces such as "Yes, We Have No Bananas" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
Each well-voiced song is another thread in the tapestry, conveying a bit of the story. Taken as a whole, they create an eye-opening and ear-pleasing picture of the immigrant experience in its heyday.
What: "Steerage Song"
Where: Theater Latte Da, at the Lab Theater, 700 N. First St., Minneapolis
When: Through Oct. 20
Information: 612-339-3003; LatteDa.org
Capsule: A musical voyage that takes us to interesting places.