'Steerage Song' sets the immigrant story to music

June 4, 2011.By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press.

There was a time when stage musicals were designed for entertainment only, offering audiences an evening-length respite from their cares. But Peter Rothstein seems determined to make the musical a tool for dealing with deeper issues.

For his latest original work, "Steerage Song," the head of Theater Latte Da and his musical collaborator, Dan Chouinard, have used exhaustive historical research of texts and music to give a sense of what it was like to be an immigrant in late-19th and early-20th century America. Currently receiving its world premiere at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater, it employs disapproving snippets from newspapers and clear-eyed chronicles written by those making the passage from Europe to New York Harbor. But the soul of "Steerage Song" is its music, and it's delivered with emotion to spare by a talented cast of 11 and an exceptional five-piece band.

Rothstein and Chouinard ask a lot of the ensemble, which is required to sing songs in at least 15 different languages. But they do so in often quite moving fashion, especially when the pain of separation permeates sad ballads, demonstrating that grief is as much a universal language as music.

In many ways, "Steerage Song" seems less a theater production than a folk oratorio. The performers stand to present their slices of the story individually and in groups, offering parallel experiences of loss and uncertainty, reminiscences of home and depictions of the difficult lives they establish once on these shores. Considering the variety of languages employed, it's no surprise that scripts are periodically consulted and read from. But this isn't a dialogue-driven show, so it never proves a distraction.

Some might prefer a plot-driven tale that focuses upon the experiences of fewer characters, rather than these snapshots from several lives, which are often enhanced by projected images from the past.

But Rothstein and Chouinard are clearly asking audiences to find compassion and commonality from experiencing "Steerage Song," and in that they succeed, especially when the songs are at their saddest.

What: Theater Latte Da's production of "Steerage Song" by Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard

When: 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul

Tickets: $31-$26, available at 651-290-1200 or ticketmaster.com

Capsule: An often moving musical look at the immigrant's experience.