Take Me America
nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
There is a wealth of talent and experience involved with the new musical Take Me, America. The cast and creative team features Broadway veterans many times over- some with as many as 10 or 20 years of credits. The topic it is addressing is one that is incredibly relevant and volatile: immigration. It is therefore doubly regrettable that Take Me, America, in its current form, is a small-minded mishmash of musical theatre clichés, offensive ethnic stereotypes, and thoroughly flawed book, music, and lyrics.
July 15, 2007
The story of Take Me, America is simple: it's the journey of nine refugees from various parts of the world seeking asylum in the U.S. Through the interviews each character has with immigration agents, the audience learns about the refugees' lives, dreams, and fears. Along the way, the audience also encounters the immigration agents, and learns their stories—and how they deal with the pressures of their job.
In the program notes, the creative team behind Take Me, America, composer Bob Christianson and lyricist/book-writer/director Bill Nabel, remark that they are not trying to take sides in the political debate about immigration, but rather explore the human stories of people seeking asylum in the U.S. While they manage to stay away from the politics of the issue, they also, sadly, stay away from any sort of human depth, tending instead towards stereotype and caricature. For instance, the refugee from Sudan sings about how he wants to be "village chief" and have a "100 cow wife," the Chinese poet recites cryptic poems while stereotypical "Asian" music plays overhead, and, worst of all, the only Muslim refugee ends up being a sleeper-cell terrorist ("No one knows me now / but I made a vow / Soon I'll draw my sword / and Allah's Reward"). By portraying the characters as stereotypes rather than people, it feels as though the creative team behind Take Me, America is patronizing the characters, diminishing their stories and the stories of people like them.
In addition to this fundamental conceptual flaw, Take Me, America features flawed book, lyrics, music, and direction. Nabel's lyrics are predictable, trite and, at times, illogical—most notably when one of the refugees, who happens to pregnant sings, "Feet have swelled to Triple D's / Can I have a tissue please?" Christianson's music is derivative—it sounds like generic synthesized background music for pop songs, and often serves to puncture the drama rather than heighten it. Nabel's book is not much better, heavy-handedly spoon-feeding the audience information about the moral questions involved in immigration. Nabel's direction relies entirely on musical theatre clichés—at times it's hard to believe that Take Me, America is not a parody of itself.
What prevents Take Me, America from becoming a complete parody, however, are the performers. From start to finish, the performers do a martyr's job of attempting to use every trick in their arsenal to sell the show. Of particularly merit is Ana Maria Andricain who, in spite of the lackluster character she is given to portray, is earnest, endearing and touching. Andricain has a really marvelously clear and beautiful singing voice, and a committed and engaging stage presence. Jan Leslie Harding is also to be commended for doing everything in her power to squeeze laughs out her part, and the script.
Take Me, America takes an interesting and original concept and fills it with clichés, gross sentimentality, and over-simplified views on a complex issue. The only thing that keeps Take Me, America afloat is the cast, who do everything in their power to save the show. However, nothing can save Take Me, America from itself, except extensive research, rewriting and re-conceptualization.