Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is that rarity, a show that defies genre yet sweeps you up in emotional storytelling. “We all sometimes pound on the door hoping to be let in,” says the narrator, played by singer-songwriter-actor Ben Caplan. Created by Caplan, playwright Hannah Moscovitch, and director Christian Barry, the show invites us into a cozy diorama-like set (by Louisa Adamson and Barry) that opens into a candlelit, all-too-human world of the refugee, crisis-born and everpresent in the world.
Embodying refugees everywhere and everywhen, The Wanderer (Caplan) is a sort of anti-Tevye, knowing and cynical yet not entirely hopeless. Gleefully and unapologetically he manipulates our minds and feelings as he shows and sings us the story of two Romanian-Jewish pogrom refugees. A superbly performed melting pot of musical theater, play-with-music, and concert, the show bursts with klezmer-inspired song.
Chris Weatherstone, who plays the saxophone and clarinet in the excellent onstage four-piece band, also steps forward as Chaim, who lost his entire family in a brutal attack and arrives alone in Halifax at age 19. Violinist Mary Fay Coady plays Chaya, a widow in her 20s. He is affectingly naïve and shy, she initially sour and suspicious as they meet by chance at an intake center in Halifax. After both settle in Montreal, Chaim begins to court Chaya and – at least as important – to win over her father, for tradition was strong in Eastern European Jewish culture, as anyone who’s seen Fiddler on the Roof knows.
The tale of Chaim and Chaya in the New World flowers into a universal one even as these particular people win our hearts with their happiness and struggles. Casting that’s somewhat against ethnic type actually reinforces the reality that the world continues to teem with refugees and other wanderers from all parts of the globe. It’s not a happy reminder, but the intimate story of these two, and the sweep of this cleverly artful, thoroughly entertaining, and sometimes raunchy recounting, seem to imply hope nonetheless.
The songs, most written by Caplan, take advantage of his marvelous vocal range, and the musicians play them with warm feeling and stark power as appropriate. Unlike in typical musical theater, the songs often function as narrative exposition, but because of the show’s set-piece structure – and because they’re composed and performed with such passion – the music and lyrics propel the story even as the songs stand on their own as sturdy folk-style numbers.
The only problem during the preview I attended was a technical one, as the instruments drowned out the vocals at times, especially during a seething, almost satanic number about (I think) the xenophobia and antisemitism that Jewish immigrants faced even in enlightened Canada. Caplan’s rough-edged delivery is more art-rock than Broadway – I scribbled “Pink Floyd” in my notes during the aforementioned number, and “Leonard Cohen” in the sublimely clever lullaby that followed it – and despite his strong voice and even stronger stage persona, Caplan’s low register couldn’t compete when the music swelled.
But you know you’re riveted when failing to catch certain lyrics makes you really angry. I trust the crew has worked through this balance problem, but even if it hasn’t, Old Stock is full of wonder and charm and eminently worth seeing. From Halifax-based 2b Theatre Company, it runs at 59e59 Theaters in New York until April 22.