Move over Teyva. Haskell Harelik has arrived in America and he likes it very much. Yes, he too is pushing a cart at the beginning of the show, but it’s a cart full of bananas and he isn’t pushing that cart at the end of the show.
“The Immigrant” at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury is a true story about Jews and Christians living together at the turn of the 20th Century and the story is specifically Haskell’s, as written by his very talented grandson, Mark Harelik, with music by Steven M. Alper and lyrics by Sarah Knapp. Haskell fled Czarist Russia in 1909, arrived in America by himself, and found welcome in Hamilton, Texas, a small rural Christian community. This musical is about the people who made America the great country that it is. It is as much about Christians and Christian traditions as it is about Jews and Jewish traditions. It is about generosity in a deep, meaningful, and uplifting way.
When a Christian couple offers Haskell a room in their home, the audience sees how generous Christians can be. When they found out that he was a Jew, they did not turn him away. People can and do come together even though they believe differently about religion and politics, as they do in this play. The trick is that it requires acceptance and an open mind.
At times, some women in the audience had tears trickling down their faces, especially when the women characters recalled their own family histories. Some of the men swallowed hard, especially when the babies were born. It is a very moving story without being sentimental. On the other hand, there are times when everyone in the theater couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
While the music is truly fine, the voices are sensational. They are pitch perfect, clear as a bell, and so rich that it’s worth the price of the ticket just to hear them sing.
However, this four-member Equity cast has a lot more to give than just their remarkable voices. Each performance sets the bar for anyone else attempting to play these roles.
Max Bisantz plays Haskell with as much charm as sincerity. In the playbill, he thanks his family “both Yids and goys alike.” Evidently, Haskell’s family practiced what it preached. Sarah Knapp, who wrote the beautiful lyrics for this show, actually performs the role of Ima, a devoted Christian woman. No wonder Knapp’s heart and soul are in her performance. Knapp’s real life husband, Steven M. Alper, composed and orchestrated the music for this show and is the musical director for this production. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Paul Blankenship plays Milton, Ima’s husband, a banker who does not go to church, but is more than generous in spirit. Rita Markova plays Haskell’s wife Leah, as fragile as fine crystal, but when push comes to shove as strong as a mother hen.
While the lights designed by Joyce Liao, the sound design by Matthew Martin, and the costumes perfectly designed by Jimmy Johansmeyer all deserve high praise, no one deserves it more than Semina DeLaurentis who directed this show with precision, inspiration, and skill.
If you liked “Fiddler on the Roof,” then you’ll love “The Immigrant: An American Musical.” If your ancestors were immigrants, then you’ll also love this musical. In other words, this is a musical for everyone. Playing through April 21, don’t miss this one. Box office: 203-757-4676.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS and CBS-CT. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]