Could you make the decision to bid farewell to your family and homeland with the prospect of a better life in the New World? Not knowing if or when you would see them again? That is the tough choice millions of immigrants to America faced from 1840-1924 during the golden age of immigration to America.Steerage Song created by Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard of Theater Latte Da gorgeously tells of the struggles European immigrants to America during this time faced.
Steerage Song doesn’t have a firm plot or characters like a traditional musical. Instead the show is divided into eight parts…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. There are also only two named characters Moses (Bradley Greenwald) and his son, Israel (Alec Fisher). They are the thread that weaves the story from Europe to North America. Israel’s true life story adds an added dimension that leaves you satisfied as his story progresses. The rest of the cast of nine portray various immigrants and historical figures.
We get a sense of how difficult it was to leave all that was familiar and journey to an unknown land. As someone who has done extensive genealogy research and has been to Ellis Island and seen the names of my ancestors written into the immigration entry logs, this show was deeply touching. There is a line in the show that refers to the immigrants making the choice to not only change their life by going to America, but also the lives of their family for generations to come. This rings true for all of us. This is a show we can all connect with.
Director and co-creator Peter Rothstein did an amazing job weaving together the stories of not only the immigrants arriving in America, but with text from speeches and other historical content from Emma Lazarus, President Calvin Coolidge, Irving Berlin and Robert Louis Stevenson. Look at the special thanks section of the playbill and I can’t imagine the amount of research that went into this production. This is truly a labor of love for both Peter Rothstein and Dan Chouinard.
The music is beyond beautiful. Dan Chouinard did an excellent job not only finding traditional and authentic songs that tell the story of each homeland, but also familiar tunes like Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The cast sings in either accented English or the native language of the fifteen countries represented in the show. This is a natural fit for ensemble member Natalie Nowytski who sings in more than 40 languages. The closing number of act one, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” is a haunting reminder of the depths immigrants went to reach the shores of America.
A simple set designed by John Clark Donahue takes us from the homelands of Europe, to the steerage compartment of boats to Ellis Island and to the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The set can easily be a dock, the deck of a ship or the streets of Manhattan. The set coupled with Peter Rothstein’s staging of coordinated candle lighting and the cast freezing mid stride so another member of the cast can have the stage all lead to the aesthetic enjoyment of the show.
Steerage Song is playing at The Lab Theater through October 20. For more information or to purchase tickets visit Theater Latte Da’s website.
Photo Credit: © Michal Daniel, 2013