Orphan Train by L.E. McCullough, Lyrics by Michael Barry Greer, Music by Doug Katsaros. Directed by Patricia Birch.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
left to right: Sam Stuto, Kyra Bechard, Charles Franklin, Alison Lehane, George Franklin, Eleah Peal; photo: Joe Schuyler
Kyra Bechard & Elivia Bovenzi; photo: Joe Schuyler
"Lookin’ Hell in the face/Not smellin’ too sweet..."
In the 1870s the streets of New York City were crowded with urchins, orphans and tramps. One man, the Reverend Charles Loring Brace, took it upon himself to foster those misfits into foster homes in the western lands of the U.S. and to do so he created the Children’s Aid Society. He enlisted the help of young men and women from the upper classes. Together they rounded up children from the youngest ages to the late teens and boarded them onto trains heading westward. At their destinations their Society shepherds would work to place the children in good homes and places where they would get an education, train in a trade, find loving protectors. It was a great idea. It didn’t always work.
This is the theme of the new musical at the New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI) at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. The show has gone through several stages of development, fostered itself by NYSTI. Now it is having a full-blown production on the stage there and it is quite an entertainment.
It has the comic book grit of "Annie" combined with the raw guts of a Sondheim historical show. Some of the kids are plucky; some are fragile yet honest and true; a few betray their finer instincts to indulge their baser ones. Similarly the adults with whom they mix and the town kids as well, run the gamut from true-blue to smarmy yellow. Many of the stories told in "Orphan Train" are as close the truth as you can get. What is remarkable in all this historic honesty is how entertaining the show is in the hands of the company in Troy.
This is due, I suspect, to the director, Patricia Birch, who has clearly worked hard and long with her younger cast members to draw on their own honest interpretations of the characters they play. There is hardly a moment when we can’t believe we’re really seeing the prototypes rather than their portrayers. Even the most blatantly theatrical moment, when a small boy engineers the rescue of another child who has fallen through the ice while skating, has a bizarre ring of reality to it. The little boy, Peter, played by George Franklin, seems to be there for real and even the off-stage ice feels probable.
As his sister Jenny, Eleah Jayne Peal is mostly fresh-faced, full-voiced and determined. A real-life Jenny could be no less than she is seen to be in this production. Emma Taylor, a fragile child reduced to begging and stealing on the streets is played by Kyra Bechard. Bechard’s child is so unlike a child of this century that for moments it seems we are transported back in time.
The two older orphans are played to the hilt by Alison Lehane as Bridget and Charles Franklin as Barney Collins. Battered, abused children Bridget and Barney cling to the realities from whence they have come and fight to make their new lives better, but neither can succeed alone. For Bridget, fleeing from an abusive father to an abusive foster father, the only remedy comes from another, more sympathetic adult. Barney does not fare as well and it is his story that dominates the second act.
The children all sing well, but Charles Franklin and Alison Lehane really do show remarkable talent. Bridget’s solo, "Can’t Complain" and Barney’s "A Banjo Pick" are certainly two of the show’s musical highlights along with the second act opener, "Play Yer Cards Right," a trio for Barney and two of the most villainous characters to hop the rails since Walt Disney’s Pinocchio went off with his two abductors. Played by David Bunce and John Romeo they are fresh and fun and unnerving in their more sinister moments.
Joe Quandt is a perfect Reverend Brace and Elivia Bovenzi is both sweet and touching as Harriet Pemberton, the escort who places the children in their adoptive homes. Many of the NYSTI regulars fill out important and secondary roles in the show including the excellent David M. Girard as the reporter, Ron Komora as the Mayor, Joel Aroeste as the blacksmith, Joe Phillips as the defense attorney and Carole Edie Smith whose short scenes as Rachel Pierce are especially memorable.
There are twenty-five musical numbers, but unlike so many contemporary shows this is not a through-composed piece. Songs are songs here and, thankfully, not rock tunes or country western rip-offs. Here we have a superbly crafted theatrical score embracing many styles and always in period but yet modern. There is the dramatic solo aria for Bridget "Bridget’s Doll" which contrasts completely with the rollicking "Pious Chatter" or the dramatic "Through the Cracks." The composer and lyricist have a knack for capturing the language and body language of the period.
The book of the show is somewhat skewed. It tries to tell too many stories in the first act and really cannot give us all we want or need in just a hair over an hour. The second act concentrates on Barney and Bridget, which is good, and yet never lets us lose sight of the others, including Harriet whose own story of faith and fear is played out quickly but well.
Birch has created wonderful characters with her troupe of players and she has had excellent aid in the fine if simple set by Richard Finkelstein who uses a break-through curtain and projections to great effect. Dona Granata’s costumes are pitch-perfect as is Kirk Bookman’s lighting. The sound system at the Schacht Fine Arts Center leaves something to be desired and the excellent six piece orchestra under the fine direction of Michael Musial is decently balanced with the singers who cannot always be understood.
This is an important show, entertaining in the extreme and historically informative at the same time. Melding these elements is not easy but the creators and interpreters here have done the job of giving their audience more than they bargained for and still sending them out humming.
Orphan Train plays at NYSTI’s performance space at the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York through February 11. Ticket prices range from $10 to $12. For tickets call the NYSTI box office at 518-274-3256.