Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, February 2009
Surplus children (the words make me shudder). They have always been a fact of life. In the animal kingdom “surplus” young are produced each year – the ones who will be taken by predators or disease or accident – in order to ensure the survival of the species. But for humankind civilization collided with the reproductive cycle and natural selection somewhere along the millennia, and our children have suffered ever since.
From 1854-1929 the Rev. Charles Brace Loring and his Children’s Aid Society (which is still in operation today) put groups of surplus children – urban orphans from the industrial cities of the east coast – on trains bound for the western frontiers. While the western communities knew the Orphan Train was coming, no advance arrangements for placing the children had been made. The train pulled into the station and the children were selected, or not, by different families. I use the word “families” loosely because the children could be taken by business owners or single or widowed individuals as well as married couples. A child might go to a home with a mother and father and siblings, or s/he might go to a sweat shop. Efforts were made to see that the children were not taken as slave labor, but that still often happened.
The new musical Orphan Train, currently being produced at the New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI) under the lively direction of the legendary Patricia Birch, follows one group of orphans and their guardian, Miss Harriet Pemberton (Elivia Bovenzi), as they journey from New York City to Bison Falls, Iowa in 1872. The show, the brainchild of composer Doug Katsaros, uses these six children, Miss Pemberton and Rev. Brace (Joe Quandt) to tell a variety of typical Orphan Train stories.
Barney Collins, (Charles Franklin) the oldest of the group, is no longer a malleable boy but not quite an independent man. He clashes with the non nonsense farmer (John McGuire) who takes him in, hops a freight train in search of gold in California, and ends up murdering two hobos (David Bunce and John Romeo) who try to rob him of his one connection to his birth family. ultimately sentenced to hang for his crimes. The next oldest, Bridget Flynn (Alison Lehane), has come from a world of sexual predators and winds up living far out in the wilderness with Abigail (Shannon Johnson) and Amos (David Bunce) Pritchard, a couple whose own daughter has died, in constant fear of her adoptive father’s attentions.
Spunky Jenny TenBrook (Eleah Jayne Peal) holds tight to her little brother Peter (George Franklin) but they end up being separated nonetheless. Peter goes as the apprentice to a kindly blacksmith (Joel Aroeste), but faces the jealousy of the man’s natural son, Jacob (Sam Stuto). Jenny is taken as a seamstress by a devout old Quaker lady, Rachel Pierce, (Carole Edie Smith) who runs a sewing business. She treats the girls in her employ well, but the established group is wary of the newcomer, especially when Jenny shows an exceptional talent as an embroiderer and a leader.
Little Emma Taylor (Kyra Bechard) does not immediately find a home, and, when she does, she meets an early death in a farming accident.
David M. Girard as a newspaper reporter, Rom Komora as the disapproving Mayor of Bison Falls, and Paul Carter as the train conductor speak as the voices of a society who are not at all sure that Rev. Brace’s project is the right solution or even a good attempt at one.
While the show has an ensemble cast, the spotlight is clearly on the six orphans. I have seen many of these young performers on stage at NYSTI and other regional theatres over my years reviewing, and I was not at all surprised to see how well they do here. After all, I have literally watched them grow up and even take some misplaced pride in their continuing success. But for the unwashed masses, let me just say that these six youngsters will knock your socks off. They are professional yet natural and exceptionally talented.
While they all sing very well, I was exceptionally impressed with the set of pipes on Peal. Charles Franklin has grown into a real actor, able to hold his own in scenes with pros like Bunce and Romeo, and he gives a moving performance as Barney, while his little brother George Franklin (this is a talented family – their sister Emily also appears in this show) is cute as a button and turns in an impressive and enjoyable performance for one so young.
Lehane is also growing into a fine young actress, and her singing voice is sweet and true. Bechard is an equally sweet singer who did well in a weakly written role. I felt I hadn’t seen enough of Emma to feel the true impact of her tragic death.
The six orphans are not the only youngsters in the cast. In addition to Emily Franklin, Zoe McGreevy, Sarah Bobok, Edward R. Reilly, and Michael Whitney – none of whom have graduated from high school – appear. And Bovenzi and Meghan St. Thomas are still in college.
It is not unique for a college-age woman to play a leading role in a professional musical theatre production – Florence Henderson made her Broadway debut at 18, Shirley Jones and Julie Andrews at 19 – but Bovenzi, an attractive brunette, makes a strong NYSTI debut as Miss Harriet Pemberton, singing beautifully and interacting honestly with the younger actors.
The adult performers, almost all long-time NYSTI company members, provide solid back-up for the younger performers.
The show is performed on an almost bare stage – a few set bits of furniture and props are trundled on and off – in front of a series of large images – mostly period photographs – on a backdrop made of wide strips of fabric that allow performers to walk right into, or out of, the past. Designer Richard Finelstein has done a masterful job of selecting and creating the images, and they give an excellent sense of time and place.
I admired Dona Granata’s 19th century costumes, but found the children’s 21st century clothing introduced in the final scene to be jarring and poorly selected. Not all street children are Goth – in fact that strikes me as a fairly expensive and specific style adopted by well-off youngsters who want to LOOK homeless. But maybe that was the young actors’ choice and not Granata’s.
As new musicals go Orphan Train, which has a score by Katsaros, lyrics by Michael Barry Greer, and a book by L.E. McCullough, is spritely and tuneful, but I fear the subject matter will be too preachy and need to cast it with a large number of skillful underage actors to allow it to become a big Broadway success. But it should have a healthy life in regional, educational, and community theatre.
My only quibble with McCullough’s book was the just too safe treatment of Bridget’s story. Here Miss Pemberton is able to “read between the lines” of Bridget’s letters and swoops in to rescue her before Mr. Pritchard besmirches her honor. In reality most Bridgets couldn’t write, couldn’t write that eloquently, or wouldn’t have dared to even hint at such matters in print, and the time it would have taken for letters and people to travel a halfway across the continent would have made such a rescue improbable, if not impossible. To put it bluntly, I wanted to see Bridget visibly pregnant with yet another surplus child by the time Miss Pemberton reached her, because that often was, and continues to be, the reality.
And speaking of surplus children, there is a beautiful, compelling, and heart-breaking exhibit in the gallery adjacent to the theatre in the Schact Fine Arts Center – color photos of older children ages 10-21 waiting to be adopted. This is the Capital Region Heart Gallery 2009. I don’t know who took the pictures, but s/he is an extremely talented photographer, capable of capturing the beauty in each young man and woman. The purpose of the Gallery is to “inspire individuals who never have considered adopting, and to motivate those who have.” I urge you to walk through the exhibit during intermission and think of a way that you can help the “surplus children” in your community – through adoption, foster parenting, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, tutoring, mentoring, or coaching. The need is always there, and every effort makes a difference.
The NYSTI production of Orphan Train runs January 30 - February 11 in the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York.The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children in grade 6 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
A WORD ABOUT THE CURRENT PLIGHT OF NYSTI
I don’t think NYSTI had any idea, when it planned its 2008-2009 season, that this production would coincide with a cost-cutting proposal from the Governor’s office that they be merged with the entity that controls The Egg, but it is fortuitous in many ways. “Orphan Train” is a perfect example of how and why NYSTI serves the community. The company provides training for young actors AND opportunities for them to work with internationally renowned artists like Patricia Birch, who has been the director/choreographer of this show throughout its development, a process that included a staged reading at NYSTI in 2006. They bring thousands of school children from as far west as Syracuse to see excellent performances like this, and provide tools to help their teachers turn a field trip to the theatre into a meaningful educational experience. With this production, those school children are not only encouraged to become future theatre patrons, but, seeing their peers on the stage, they are encouraged to try their hand at the theatre arts themselves – arts that require strong reading and teamwork skills.
Can someone explain to me exactly how NYSTI is wasting taxpayers dollars??
I cannot imagine why anyone would think that decimating a successful 33-year-old state program is a wise cost-cutting measure. Aren’t there any state-funded programs that AREN’T working that could be trimmed? Here’s an analogy: Let’s say your family just loves to have toast with their breakfast and you have an old toaster that works like a charm – it makes the toast all nice and brown and crispy just like you like it and never burns the edges. What would be the sense of in throwing it the trash? You’d only have to buy a new one (which will undoubtedly cost more and there’s no guarantee that it will work as well) or live without toast, which is possible but far less enjoyable. Frankly, if my Governor made me throw out my favorite toaster and deprived my children of their morning toast, I’d vote for someone else come election day.
If you are a New York State resident take a minute to communicate with Governor David Paterson and the State Legislature (Click on these links to track down your State Senator or your State Assembly Member) that you want them to eliminate Part “B” of S.57/A.157 to stop the proposed merger with The Egg and allow NYSTI to continue its excellent work for families, children, educators, and all people who love the theatre.
Heck, write in even if you live in Massachusetts, Vermont, or Connecticut and travel to see NYSTI shows. It can’t hurt!
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009