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Theater Review (Seattle): Take Me America by Bill Nabel and Bob Christianson at Village Theatre

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Tackling a difficult topic with supreme glibness, new musical Take Me America is an enervating look at seven refugees trying to enter the United States. Considering the subject matter and the amount of characters, I should have known the 90-minute, no intermission running time would be a problem. But with this approach, it wouldn’t have mattered if it were three hours long — Take Me America doesn’t bother delving past the surface level of its subject’s sobering complexities. The show, which is based on 2000 documentary Well-Founded Fear, is on stage at Village Theatre through Nov. 20.

Problematically, but predictably, the show is viewed through the prism of the white, middle-class immigration officers determining whether the foreign refugees will be granted asylum in America. This doesn’t leave much room for the refugees to develop three-dimensional human personalities, but the government agents are just as flat, divided into three neat archetypes — crusty hardliner Michael (Dennis Bateman), soft-hearted sass Marsha (Leslie Law) and idealistic newcomer Gary (Aaron C. Finley). As a recent college graduate unsure of his chosen career path, Gary becomes the show’s de facto protagonist.

(From Left to Right) Ben Gonio, Diana Huey and Aaron C. Finley star in Take Me America. Photo by Jay Koh.The refugees looking for asylum are a pregnant Algerian woman (Iris Elton), an El Salvadorian whose family has been persecuted (Heather Apellanes Gonio), a jovial Sudanese man (Ekello Harrid Jr.), a defiant Palestinian (Eric Polani Jensen), a gay Haitian (J Reese), and a Chinese couple (Diana Huey and Ben Gonio). Each receives a brief interview and waits for his or her fate to be decided.

The backstory of each is mostly glossed over, with only Chinese couple Fan and Wu rounded out beyond mere facts and statistics. As they make a desperate plea to Gary for mercy, he’s forced to confront whether he can live with the weight of his decision.

Unfortunately, Bill Nabel’s book flits from one scene to the next without a real sense of narrative cohesion, and his lyrics position Gary’s inner struggle in almost the most generic way possible. Gary’s big anthems “Standin’ at the Edge” and “Flying Toward the Sun” are as cliché-ridden as their titles make them sound, with him making vague pronouncements about going somewhere in his life and struggling to make the right decision without ever confronting the specific reality of what he has to do.

The gravity of the scenario is also countered by Bob Christianson’s score, a bright, peppy set of songs that make almost zero lasting impression and are weighed down even further by the ultra-cheesy lite-rock orchestrations.

Jerry Dixon’s direction relies far too heavily on projected images that evoke the refugees’ homes and their inner fears and desires, but the surface onto which they’re projected — a wall of filing cabinets — is part of some smart scenic design by Scott Fyfe. Using filing cabinets to build a literal fortress of bureaucracy, the visual motif is effectively disheartening.

For their part, the actors handle the material capably, with Finley balancing naïveté and uncertainty well, and Huey and Gonio actually achieving some palpable emotional distress. It’s too bad the show itself isn’t distressing in the least. A musical about the human cost of immigration problems ought to provoke some pangs of painful awareness. The countenance of Take Me America seems blankly nonplussed, and it made me feel the same way.

Take Me America is on stage at Village’s Issaquah location through Oct. 24 before moving to its Everett location for a run through Nov. 20. Tickets are available on Village Theatre’s website.

 

About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.