Yearning to breathe free


Take Me America


Book and Lyrics By Bill Nabel
Music by Bob Christianson
Directed by Bill Nabel
Produced by Double Play Connections LLC and Meredith Lucio

Midtown International Theatre Festival ( for schedules)

WorkShop Theater MainStage, 312 W. 36th St., 4th Floor
Equity showcase (closed
August 3, 2007)
Review by Byrne Harrison


A documentary about the Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn't sound like the most fertile choice of material from which to create a musical. That just goes to show that with the right imagination, anything is possible. In this case, Bill Nabel and Bob Christianson have created Take Me America from the 2000 documentary Well-Founded Fear, which followed the lives of asylum seekers and the INS officials who must judge their stories. And it's the use of that word – story –  that drives this play. As one of the characters says, "It's not a story, it's my life."  But how can an INS official determine that in an hour-long interview?

While Take Me America tells the story of a diverse set of characters – a pregnant political activist; a hard working Latina; an Anglican, a Muslim, and a Jew threatened for their religious beliefs; two young men, one Haitian, the other Sudanese, fleeing the chaos in their lands; and the INS officials who deal with them – the real story centers around three characters: Huang (Eric Chan), a Chinese poet and dissident; Zhang (Michelle Liu Coughlin), his beautiful and much younger wife; and Gerald (Joseph Kolinski), a middle-aged INS official whose job often conflicts with his conscience. Gerald, impressed by Huang's intelligence, poetry, and struggles in China, is inclined to grant him asylum, but can't do so until checking the various facts and discussing the details of the case. Zhang interprets this to mean he won't be granting asylum and offers herself to Gerald. This sets in motion a series of events that force Gerald to reconsider his career and could lead to Huang and Zhang's deportation.

The acting is strong in this production. Most notable were Kolinski as the conflicted Gerald, the delightful Jan Leslie Harding one of Gerald's no-nonsense coworkers, Denny Paschall, as a non-observant Jew fleeing persecution in Russia, and Mike Mitchell, Jr., as Jean, a Haitian who will say or do anything to come to America.

Christianson's music is good, though musical director Nate Patten's synthesizer doesn't always show it off well. Nabel's lyrics are a mixed bag. Some songs work well, most notably the vibrant anthem 'Take Me America' and 'Tiny Little Voice', a song sung by the three characters seeking religion-based asylum. But others feature some awkward phrases that sacrifice meaning for the sake of rhyme. Nabel's book is adequate, though not outstanding. It would be nice to have some scenes fleshed out. All too often, the characters say exactly what they need to say to advance the scene; while this is efficient, it doesn't sound natural.

Overall, Take Me America has a strong foundation. It deals with one of the most important, and divisive, issues of the day. With a little work and some polish, Take Me America could be an interesting and impressive evening of theatre.


Box Score:


Writing: 1

Directing: 1

Acting: 2

Sets: 1

Costumes: 1

Lighting/Sound: 1


Copyright 2007 Byrne Harrison


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