NYSTI musical tracks plight of 19th century orphans

The New York State Theatre Institute’s latest production, “Orphan Train,” takes a look at the plight

Categories: Life & Arts

The New York State Theatre Institute’s latest production, “Orphan Train,” which opens on Friday, takes a look at the plight of “surplus” children in the mid- to late 1800s.

The relocation of homeless children from the East Coast to the Midwest was the brainchild of Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace, portrayed by Joe Quandt of Troy.

The real life Brace came to New York City from rural Connecticut in the 1850s and was confronted with the dismal reality of overburdened orphanages and neglected children. An estimated 30,000 children were orphaned or homeless in the city at that time. His idea was to move children west and find families for them, and he formed the Children’s Aid Society for this purpose.

The results were mixed. While some orphans ended up with loving families, others found themselves in miserable or even fatal situations. NYSTI’s “Orphan Train” chronicles the experiences of six orphans who were some of the 200,000 children who were relocated from 1854 to 1929.

‘Orphan Train’

WHERE: New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, Russell Sage College, Troy

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturdays, Jan. 31 and Feb. 7; 2 p.m. Sundays Feb. 1 and 8; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6; 10 a.m. weekdays, Jan. 30, Feb. 3-6, Feb. 10-11.

HOW MUCH: $20 for adults, $16 for seniors and students; $10, child to age 12.

MORE INFO: Call 274-3256 or visit www.nysti.org

NYSTI’s “Orphan Train” was the inspiration of composer Doug Katsaros, who learned about this piece of American history when he was surfing the Internet and found an announcement about a reunion of orphan train survivors. “The idea that they would think of them as ‘survivors’ rather than the last-remaining survivors — that’s dark,” Katsaros said.

Is his sleep that night, the idea for a musical about the plight of these children came to him in a dream. Katsaros contacted a couple of friends, lyricist Michael Barry Greer and writer L.E. McCullough and acted out the dream for them. Soon, a first version of “Orphan Train” was born.

Taking the scenes that McCullough had written and the lyrics by Greer, Katsaros began to compose the music. “I didn’t write a note of music until we had 15 songs and most of the scenes done,” he said.

Katsaros and his colleagues premiered the musical in the New York Music Theatre Festival and began talks with NYSTI in fall 2006 to bring the show to the Capital Region.

In a mix of 1900s Americana music and dialogue, the story of the orphans unfolds.

The musical starts with a mother leaving her baby on the steps of a church, followed by a scene in Grand Central Station in 1872 on a train bound for Bison Falls, Iowa. Miss Harriet Pemberton, a social worker with the Children’s Aid Society, played by NYSTI intern Elivia Bovenzi of Wyantskill, is in charge of chaperoning the orphans as they make their way west to find new homes.

Children’s point of view

Through lively scenes and music woven together in a collage style, the play depicts the fate of the six orphans. Director Patricia Birch, who was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame on Monday, kept the set simple intentionally so that the children’s stories take center stage. Birch, whose resume includes two Emmy Awards and five Tony nominations and credits in direction and choreography for theater, television and film, points out that NYSTI’s production tells the story from the children’s points of view, not the adults. “I’ve always been interested in the plight of kids,” she said.

Charles Franklin, 16, of Loudonville, plays the oldest orphan who ends up in serious trouble. High school sophomore Eleah Jayne Peal of East Greenbush portrays Jenny TenBrook, a formerly well-to-do girl whose circumstances took a turn for the worse, leaving her and her brother, played by 8-year-old George Franklin of Loudonville, homeless.

High school freshman Alison Lehane of Wilton portrays an Irish girl fleeing her life in a brothel in New York City only to end up in an abusive home. Kyra Desiree Bechard, a fifth-grader at Waterford-Halfmoon and Sam Stuto of Menands round out the cast of orphans.

The challenge of this production was capturing a 75-year period of history in one production. Over the course of 71⁄2 decades, the Children’s Aid Society moved 200,000 children west to homes in 45 states, and today, roughly 4 million people are descendants of those orphans.

McCullough sought to stay close to the history of the play’s time period, partly through the language of the play. “I wanted the unique language that was period [specific], some of the occupational slang. That’s tricky.”

He credits Birch and her use of theatrical elements to transport the audience back in time. “We wanted to get it so you believe when you are sitting in that audience that you are in 1872, and that’s what she has really been able to do,” McCullough said.

Modern problem, too

Even though there were clearly successes with the orphan train, like former governors John Brady of Alaska and Andrew Burke of North Dakota, as well as some congressmen and a mayor, the orphan trains had their share of tragedies, too.

While the story takes place over a century ago, the piece brings awareness to the fact that the problem that the Children’s Aid Society endeavored to solve with its orphan trains remains a serious issue now, with more than 2 million homeless children in America.

“This speaks to today,” McCullough said. “It’s not some dry history lesson. Today, we still have surplus children. We don’t call them that, but the problem hasn’t been solved,” he said.

Bringing the point right home to the Capital Region is a companion exhibition of photographic portraits of children in our area who are awaiting adoption. The “Heart Gallery” exhibition will be on view in the Russell Sage Art Gallery off the theater lobby.

Besides enjoying a good show, both Birch and McCullough hope that audiences will be inspired to help in some way. “I want them to have an awareness that we all have to do something to help each other,” Birch said.

Leave a Reply