The Immigrant

Other than Native Americans, we are all immigrants here. Some of us, though, forget the difficulties that our forbearers overcame in order to one day call this home. Luckily, there are a wealth of stories that have survived to remind us of the transformation and compassion required to make this journey and to help others make it as well.

Photo: Adam Heller as Haskel in the Immigrant
Adam Heller as Haskell
Photo by Terry Shapiro

In 1985, the Denver Center Theatre Company produced the premiere of The Immigrant, a tale of a Russian Jew's emigration to Hamilton, Texas, and his ensuing struggle to establish himself, send for his wife, and start a family. At the time, one of the producers remarked that the play would make a fine musical, and now, seventeen years later, the musical version of The Immigrant premieres at the Denver Center.

The play is the mostly true story of Haskell, who begins his new life selling bananas from a hand cart he pulls along the dusty roads of this central Texas backwater, where he is befriended by Milton, the local banker, and his devout Baptist wife, Ima. Barely able to communicate at first, Haskell and the couple slowly develop a mutual respect, which grows to include Leah, Haskell's wife, when she arrives. Despite the ups and downs of their relationship, playwright Mark Harelik builds a bridge founded on respect and tolerance between two very different cultures.

One of the features that sets musicals apart from straight theatre is the inner life of the characters that is revealed through their songs, and new version of The Immigrant benefits immensely from this addition. Steven M. Alper's klezmer flavored score is decidedly impressionistic, with Sarah Knapp's recitative lyrics reflecting these musical portraits. The four actors, Adam Heller as Haskell, Jacqueline Antaramian as Leah, Walter Charles as Milton, and Cass Morgan as Ima, bring unique and profound insights to both their vocal style and characterizations, adding to the emotional gravity of their interactions.

Heller moves Haskell gradually and meticulously from an orthodox, Yiddish speaking itinerant, to a spiritual, commercially successful store owner. Antaramian's Leah is transformed from a devout, out-of-place foreigner to a joyous, socially active mother. In Charles' hand, Milton's frontier ethic is put to the test by his hard working but culturally awkward friends. But it is Morgan's Ima who, challenged by her husband, finds the truth within her strict Baptist precepts and provides the comedic glue that reaches across prejudices and draws the families together.

At two and three-quarters hours, the play runs almost operatic length, but the epic nature of the drama holds up, for it is a story we are still telling. The Denver Center Theatre Company's premiere of The Immigrant runs through February 23rd. 303-893-4100.


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