Not since "Contact: The Musical" have I seen such an ill conceived new musical roll into town. But the latest new musical to get a mainstage run at Village Theatre brought up from their "Village Originals Festival"; "Take Me America" is just that.
Based on the documentary "Well Founded Fear", "Take Me America" with book and lyrics by Bill Nabel and music by Bob Christianson follows seven refugees looking to leave their oppressive homelands and seek asylum in America and the three immigration agents who have to decide who stays and who goes back. And really that's the story, if you can call it that. Yes, the situations are horrific, although they don't really go into them that much (mostly they just say they will be killed if they go back). But there's not much of a story arc to go through, just interview after interview with the agents (the newbie, the kind one and the jaded veteran) throwing in their own dilemmas. And then, ultimately, we discover who is granted asylum. This is not a compelling story. No one grew over the course of the show. No problems were overcome. It was simply a day in the life of these immigrants and agents. It may be a horrible day for some but that doesn't give us a reason to engage.
And then there's the music and lyrics which I can only describe as uninspired, cliché and lazy. Right from the opening number we were told what we were in for as the immigrants belted out the same three words over and over, the title of the show "Take Me America". OK, yes, there were other lyrics as well but Nabel certainly relies quite heavily on repetition to fill out those songs and that does not make it good. Furthermore, none of the songs really moved along what little story there was. They simply expressed the feelings of the people involved. But with such a lack of story I guess they couldn't really move much. And I have to mention one of the final numbers where the agents are going over the case files to decide the fates of these people. Here is a song where we could actually put in some meaning or even some kind of arc. Instead, as the agents talked about each case they simply said, "Yadda, Yadda, Yadda". No, I'm not kidding. Rather than getting to know what was going through the agent's heads in their decision process we got "Yadda, Yadda, Yadda".
The cast is filled with some absolutely amazing performers which makes it all the sadder that they are stuck in this. As the three agents Dennis Bateman, Aaron C. Finely and Leslie Law are wonderful. Although I did feel that the character of Michael was a little one note and Gary a little over the top but then I think that's more how they were written. And as the refugees Iris Elton, Ben Gonio, Heather Apellanes Gonio, Ekello Harrid Jr., Diana Huey, Eric Polani Jensen and J Reese shine when they can. Their voices are gorgeous and they fill these two dimensional characters with as much as they can, but it's tough to do something with what's not there. I really felt bad for these wonderful actors and wanted to grant them all asylum from this show.
The direction from Jerry Dixon is pretty straight forward although I think he relies too heavily on the projections to convey a story that's not there. My readers know of my disdain for over used projections. Just because the technology is there doesn't mean you have to use it that much. We might as well be watching a movie. And while some of it was OK, most of it was just overdone and distracting. Especially the decision to put up the American Flag and the Statue of Liberty during the final number just came across as desperate.
So all together an interesting idea from I'm sure some engaging source material that was diluted down to the most basic and stereotypical elements without a unifying story arc. I don't really see why this was brought up from the festival and given a full staging when there are so many better shows out there. As an audience, we deserve better and I'm sure these immigrants and their stories deserve better as well.