Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Crazy Glue
Orphan trains were real phenomena from the mid 1850s through 1929. In large Eastern cities, great numbers of children were abandoned, ran away from abusive homes, or were orphaned when their parents died of epidemics. In 1850 there were an estimated 30,000 such orphans in New York City alone. Through the work of philanthropic organizations, many of these children were sent off on trains to be placed with families, primarily in rural Midwestern locales. While hard to track exact numbers, Children's Aid Society records indicate 120,000 being placed in new homes via these programs, which became known as orphan trains.
Playwright Patty Lynch devised a story of one such orphan train and the outcomes for the children on board. It begins in 1889 New York City with a prologue in which a draped, spotlighted figure called "The Figure" sings the haunting "Rockabye," promising safe haven to children of different ages huddled in the shadows. In contrast, we next see their struggles to get by on the street with no means of support, and a young brother and sister whose mother dies before their eyes. Children's Aid Society, having saturated several states, is sending a train to place children in a new territory: Minnesota. Two adults, hardened long-time agent Mr. Louis and high spirited first timer Miss Grimstad, will accompany the orphans and supervise their placement.
The newly orphaned siblings Franz and Katrin become last minute additions to the train's roster, as do a pair of teenaged orphans, Aloysius and Sally Ann. Aly, as he is called, is boastful, quick tempered, and a thief. He is also the leader among orphans in his turf, a blend of Newsies' Jack Kelly and the Artful Dodger. Sally Ann is goodhearted, hardworking and levelheaded, except when it comes to her strong feelings for Aly. Along the way, the train also picks up a mute African-American orphan, Amanda, challenging Mr. Louis to find a suitable placement.
The first act continues to follow their journey, as various orphans express hopes and fears, and Mr. Louis cautions Miss Grimstad against becoming too attached to the children. One by one the orphans are placedin good homes and bad. The second act follows the orphans' adjustment to their new lives. The focus pivots among Franz and his sister Katrin, who have been tearfully separated; Amanda's locked-in voice which her foster father, a former Buffalo Soldier, endeavors to release; Aly's struggle under the thumb of the sadistic deputy sheriff who has taken him in; and Aly and Sally Ann's urgent desire to be together. There are no surprises, given the script's tendency to so bluntly underline each character's worst fear or fondest hope that we are all but assured it will come to pass.
Patty Lynch's book crams a lot of story into the show's two acts, which allows us to see a range of circumstances and outcomes experienced by orphan train riders. Though these characters are fictitious, documentation of similar cases attests to her work's realistic depiction of the hardships these children endured. On the other hand, the book spools out in an episodic manner that robs it of depth and the ability to fully connect with the characters.
Charlie Maguire's score adds emotional heft. None of the songs are particularly memorable, but they underscore the experiences the characters are going through. Two songs shared by Sally Ann and Aly, "Dare You" in act one and "Orphan Boy" in act two, give voice to different ends of their relationship. "Shooting Star," a duet for Katrin and Miss Grimstad, sweetly affirms how a child and adult can bring new life to one another, and the rollicking "Orphan Rider" conveys the orphans' hopes of a fresh start. "Dog" is an example of what musical theater does well: It winningly blends a catchy tune, witty lyrics, and character-driven dancing to move the narrative forward. It starts off as Franz and Sally Ann's wistful remarks that they would be better off as dogs than as orphans, and transitions into a series of humiliations delivered by the townie kids upon the orphans.
The more robust numbers are presented with gusto, the stage energized by Emily Michaels King's lively choreography. Music director Andrew Fleser leads a four player orchestra that sounds great as it brings Maguire's score to life.
The central performances are more than up to the needs of the material. As the teen couple in love, Devon Cox (as Sally Ann) and Ryan London Levin (as Aly) give solid performances and develop fully formed characters, at least as far as the broad nature of the script allows. There is a palpable chemistry between them that draws us to want their love to work. Their singing is adequate, occasionally struggling to find the notes. Veteran actors Norah Long (as Miss Grimstad), Peter Thompson (as Mr. Louis), and T. Mychael Rambo (as the Buffalo Soldier), and Terry Hempleman (as deputy sheriff Hawkins) each bring top-drawer acting to their roles, with Long and Rambo given opportunities to showcase their beautiful voices. Hempleman makes his character's sadistic streak almost painful to watch.
As the younger orphans, Peder Lindell as Franz, Maia Hernandez as Katrin and Lauren Bonner as Amanda (alternating in the part with Dionna Commodore) win our affection and sympathy. Karen Weber's strong voice draws us to The Figure (she doubles as Mrs. Stanley, who takes Sally Ann into her home), while Eric Knutson and Melanie Wehrmacher are amusing as Mr. and Mrs. Studt, a German immigrant couple who take in Franz to work in their general store. The remainder of the cast all do fine work in smaller roles and as an ensemble, bringing each scene to vivid life.
Co-directors Ron Peluso and Anya Kremenetsky keep the narrative moving, maintaining the clarity of each storyline as we skip back and forth among them. Orphan Train's physical production provides a versatile stage setting, with a sliding freight train door put to multiple uses, period costumes that easily distinguish between the poverty of the orphans and the relative comfort of others, and lighting that aids us in shifting focus and tone from scene to scene.
Orphan Train is not a great musical, but it does offer a glimpse into a little known part of our regional history, and gives us a chance to exercise our emotions. Something about it is inexplicably crowd pleasing. Perhaps it is a validation that hardship can be overcome and that good prevails, even if evil extracts its price along the way. That, and all those singing and dancing kids expressing their yearning with full throat and pure hearts. It is hard not to call that a winner.
Orphan Train continues at History Theatre through December 18, 2016. 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets from $37.00 - $52.00; senior (age 60+) $2.00 discount available; under 30 discount - $30.00; student discount - $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.
Writer: Patty Lynch; Music and Lyrics: Charlie Maguire; Directors: Ron Peluso and Anya Kremenetsky; Music Director: Andrew Fleser; Musical Arrangements: Richard Kriehn; Choreographer: Emily Michaels King; Scenic Design: Gunther Gullickson, based on Nayna Ramey's original design; Costume Design: Lynn Farrington; Lighting Design: Chris Johnson; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties: Abbee Warmboe; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Stage Manager: Janet L. Hall
Cast: Marcus Adams (Carl), Lauren Bonner (Amanda), Dionna Commodore (Amanda), Devon Cox (Sally Ann), Terry Hempleman (Andy Hawkins), Maia Hernandez (Katrin), Eric Knutson (Photographer/Judge), Ryan London Levin (Aloysius), Peder Lindell (Franz), Norah Long (Miss Grimstad), Jordan Muschler (Frederick), T. Mychael Rambo (Fireman/John Lincoln Jones), Carl Schoenborn (Shopkeeper/Mr. Studt), Peter Thompson (Mr. Louis), Josie Turk (Clarissa), Karen Weber (The Figure/Mrs. Stanley), Melanie Wehrmacher (Amanda), Ensemble: Evie Bair, Carley Clover, Noah Coon, Ethan Davenport, Zoe Hollander, Gavihn Lee, Callie Schroer, Angela Steele