Musical tells stories of hope in the dark

One of the most frequently produced plays in regional theater is Mark Harelik's "The Immigrant," which received its world première at the Denver Center Theatre Company in 1985. It was a real three-handkerchief play then - but also uplifting and joyful.

Now the play has been reworked into a musical, playing at the Denver Center and opening at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida March 5. While some songs could be more melodic, others are beautiful enough to make an audience catch its breath.

"The Immigrant" is about the search for life's meaning as much as it is the story of generations of new Americans seeking refuge from persecution, escape from degrading poverty, and political and social freedom in the Promised Land. So often that story is told in dark terms - the disappointment of exploitation and intolerance that can greet immigrants.

Mr. Harelik originally based the play on his own family's experiences: His grandfather and grandmother were Jewish refugees who escaped persecution in Russia.

"The main thing is that the [musical] stopped being about my grandparents," says Harelik in a recent interview. "I removed most of the personal references. Now the four characters are archetypal."

It's true. The new musical is less personal, more universal, and strangely enough, more poignant. The basic story arc is the same: When Haskell arrives in Texas, he speaks little English, has no money, and hawks bananas for a penny each. (Adam Heller's performance as Haskell is a comic delight.) Ima and Milton take him in and set him up in business - Ima because she's a Christian with a heart of gold, and Milton because he has good business sense and more humanity than he cares to acknowledge.

Haskell saves enough to send for his wife, Leah (played with warmth and insight by Jacqueline Antaramian), and together their business thrives. Haskell and Leah raise three sons (offstage), one of whom is named after Milton. But when World War II breaks out, Haskell and Milton fall out over politics. Years later, before Milton (Walter Charles gets the curmudgeon right) dies, they make up. It is Haskell who apologizes, acknowledging his gratitude to the cantankerous old dear.

The most beautiful songs are actually those that illumine different aspects of love. At the end of the play, Ima (charming Cass Morgan), who is a Baptist, sings about having tried to get her husband to "Take the Comforting Hand of Jesus." The song's not about dogma; it's about the love she feels for her husband.

But the best of all the songs is "The Stars," which Haskell sings at the beginning of the play, Leah sings toward the middle, and Leah, Ima, and Haskell sing together at the end. The lines "Nothing is ever lost" and "God is there in the dark" speak to the religious belief systems of the characters, of course. But "Nothing is ever lost" also is an affirmation that life has meaning and, despite all the losses the characters experience, that meaning is permanent. Leah kissed her mother goodbye, never to see her again when she followed her husband to the new world. Ima's son left home never to return, and her husband falls ill and dies. Still, "Nothing is ever lost."

And despite the apparent darkness (from persecution to culture shock to intolerance), the stars light the way and "God is there in the dark." It's a brave lyric to write. It's not postmodern or hip. But it is something millions of people have experienced, and it reflects the spirit of the play. The melody echoes a Jewish folk song. It falls on the ear like a hymn, yet it suits the theatrical moment - strong, handsome, and bright as diamonds.

Neither the music nor the play itself is sentimental or manipulative. "All of the real value of your relationships continue," playwright Harelik says. Again, it is experience that speaks.

"The song came very fast," says lyricist Sarah Knapp, whose husband, composer Steven M. Alper, wrote the lovely music. "I remember it didn't seem slick. But I didn't mess with it. It seemed very right.... I was thinking and feeling for every one of the characters. 'Nothing is ever lost' is comfort for all of them."

But there's nothing ironic or cynical about the story or music. Isn't that gauche? "I'm aware that we are not cynical," laughs Ms. Knapp. "Maybe I'm going to catch it for this - but the song is what it had to be."

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