Your huddled masses yearning to breathe
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
These words (by poet Emma Lazarus) were engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty in 1903, at the height of immigration to the United States. But soon that welcoming sentiment began to change, culminating in the passage of the National Origins Act in 1924, severely limiting immigration, especially from "undesirable" areas such as Southern and Eastern Europe. Steerage Song, a music-theater piece created by Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard, explores these historical themes of immigration through authentic music and text of the time. A semi-staged version of it was first presented two years ago. Much of the cast returns in this fully staged production, with slight changes to text and songs. The result is a truly beautiful expression of ideas at the very heart of America. The (perhaps not so) surprising thing is that the arguments being made against immigration today were also being made 100 years ago, making this piece not just a historical reflection but also extremely relevant to the present.
Peter (who also directs the piece) and Dan (music director) have collected dozens of songs from the American immigrant experience between 1840 and 1924, from various languages and cultures through Europe. They have tied the songs together using text from newspaper articles, speeches, and other historical documents, and constructed them into eight parts representing the journey of the immigrants: The Call; Bidding Farewell; The Voyage; A Sonnet in the Harbor; Ellis Island; The Lower East Side; By the People, For the People; and The Golden Door Closes. The nine ensemble members portray the mostly nameless immigrants as they leave their homelands and find a new life in America. The one character we follow throughout this journey is perhaps the most successful immigrant musician from this period, a 5-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant named Israel Beilin who became one of America's most beloved songwriters, Irving Berlin. Through his and others' stories we witness the courage of the millions of people who left everything behind to come to America and make a better life for themselves and their families, and in doing so made America richer too.
|Dan Chouinard and his accordian|
lead the cast of Steerage Song
|waving goodbye to the homeland|
It's no secret that Theater Latte Da is my favorite theater company. Musical theater is my favorite art form, and Latte Da does it in an innovative and forward-thinking way. In fact, their tagline this year is "we don't do musical theater, we do theater musically." The thing that elevates Theater Latte Da above many other theaters in town is the impeccable attention to detail, on great display in Steerage Song. Every aspect of the production is of the highest quality: sets, costumes, sound design (actors are miked but in an unobtrusive way), casting, staging, the playbill, lighting, video projections, the use of props, and the talent level of the performers. Nothing is overlooked and it all adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theater. Playing now through October 20 at the Lab Theater.