Steerage Song –

A Review of a Performance by Theatre Latte Da at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, MN
Show created by Peter Rothstein (director) and Dan Chouinard (music)

Cast: Sasha Andreev, Dennis Curley, Megan Fischer, Alec Fisher, Bradley Greenwald, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Jay Hornbacher, Natalie Nowytski, Britta Ollman

Instrumentalists: Brian Barnes, Laura MacKenzie, Dale Mendenhall, Jim Price, Dan Chouinard

My family came from the Scandinavian countries in the late nineteenth century. I grew up hearing songs of those countries. Friday night, the performance of Steerage Song gave me a wonderful, joyous, touching taste of what my family just a few generations ago experienced. I was moved in so many ways – my mind learned, my heart-felt the fear, anticipation and joy of such an adventure, and my eyes watered when songs I heard at family reunions were so delicately and artistically performed.

The show is divided into sections that give us songs and scenes from before, during and after the emigration trip. We hear ethnic songs aplenty, including Swedish, Yiddish, Polish, Italian, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Scottish, Irish, and Norwegian. The show employs 15 different languages as well, spoken and sung. We meet the different ethnic groups as represented by the cast of nine performers – all of them well polished and so very well prepared and rehearsed for this work.

The music is the center of the show, but the history behind it all is just as vital. We hear snippets from various documents that were pertinent to the emigrant experience of the day – this includes a handbook of how to travel, various official documents, newspaper clippings, Ellis Island records, and other sources. Clearly, the three years that the show creators Rothstein and Chouinard were highly fruitful as they researched songs and facts about the life and times of the emigrants from Europe back then.

The set serves as a place for the five instrumentalists to play, for the actors to move, and to set the feel of a landing dock for the departure and arrival of the emigrants. A projection screen at the back of the space was used to announce new languages or sections of the work. Boards and poles are used as lecterns, ship masts, ship rails, and tables. Lighting the set is accomplished efficiently from song to song and scene to scene. Costuming brings to mind all those pictures we’ve seen over the years of the travelers in their coats, footwear, scarves, hats, and all that comes with it. Props costumes placed wisely across the set allow the show to move at a smooth and quick pace. One scene/song blended into the other – meaning the show is well designed for such smooth motions.

The dances were quite simple – nothing elaborate, but then, that’s the reality of the emigration experience. The dances came from folk music, so we saw some reels, some mazurkas, some polkas – these dances added a nice kinetic mood to the show.

But then, as was mentioned, the music was the center of the show. With just nine voices, we heard solos, duets, trios, quartets, and downright four-part harmonies full of rich tones and blends that rival any other show I’ve seen.

The program did not provide a list of the songs – that would have been difficult, because there are 40 different songs in the show. It would be hard to highlight specifically some of them, but I would like to try…. There’s an opening trio of women that sets the mood of the whole show. The men get a chance to shine on an early barbershop quartet type style song – and so many excellent solos…. Bravo to the cast for their voices.

Did I mention that I teared up a bit? Yes, I did. Two Scandinavian songs back to back did it to me… first, the very playful OLEANA, in which the verses relate the joys of the land of milk and honey that is called America – and then the heart-rending version of Halsa Dem Dar Hemma, with the entire cast harmonizing this gorgeous Swedish tune that I heard so many times as a child, boiling up memories of my grandmother and so many family events.

Two hours long – no more, no less – of a history lesson, of wonderful music, of a visual theatrical palette to present all that history, and of some fine performances of a unique stage piece.

Central Lakes College in Brainerd, MN was the second outstate performance of Steerage Song. The first performance was on Nov. 1 at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN. The third and final presentation will be on Nov. 13 at the Reif Center in Grand Rapids, MN.

Theatre Latte Da (http://www.theaterlatteda.com/) is located at 345 13th Avenue NE in Minneapolis, MN.

There are some clips on YOUTUBE if you care to look further.

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