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Larry Litt

Orphan Train
Directed by Patricia Birch
Book by L.E. McCullough
Music and Music Direction by Doug Katsaros
Lyrics by Michael Barry Greer
Presented by New York Musical Theater Festival ’05
Theatre at St. Clements, NYC
Opened Sept. 22, 2005

Much children’s pain and suffering is caused by poverty, illiteracy, their absent or abusive parents and other predatory adults. Often, when they run away from home or are deserted they end up in orphanages. In the same world as the uncaring adults are religious people who will help children escape their victimization by offering them guidance, safer, decent homes with prosperous futures. However sometimes this ideal fails and the children fall to newer, lower depths. This is the premise of Orphan Train, a new musical that tells several children's stories through the work of Rev. Charles Brace, founder of The Children's Aid Society.

The play offers very little history of the pragmatic and single-minded Rev. Brace (Thomas-David McDonald), who is doing God’s work and saving the taxpayers money. Especially when the show wants to tell several children's stories as well. Grace Clary as Bridget Flynn and Robert Hager and Barney Reynolds stand out among a group of brilliantly talented young actors. The conflicts of dashed hopes, disappointments, and adjustment to new realities, both good and bad, fill this show with multiple lives extending in many directions. We share their moments of joy and pain through revealing, emotional songs and dialogue.

The children are worldly wise and cynical from street life. However they’re still vulnerable to leering, lecherous, manipulating adults. Miss Pemberton (Katie E. Tomlinson), a dedicated Children’s Aid Society social worker wavers from the mission, then returns to the commitment. She is notable for her grace with the children and her restrained anger at adults.

The problem for me with this show is that its morality gets in the way of its reality. Among the six children featured, the show highlights the negative experiences of a sexually exploited teenage girl and a gullible and violent teenage boy. They may be “surplus children” who need help, however they’re also teenagers who must learn life’s lessons the same way as the rest of us. We don’t learn anything about them other than that they are victims of adults. Is there a perfect world for children, especially teenagers? Perhaps fewer children’s stories would have given this very capable play the depth this issue deserves.

In the end it’s the children who make this musical a worthy experience. With their poignant songs and stage innocence they make this a message play about the condition of children throughout history. Ultimately, children will be victims unless they have families or dedicated advocates to protect them. Just look at the world’s streets today.


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