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Theatre in Review: Songs About Trains (Working Theater/Radical Evolution/New Ohio Theatre)

You won't find a more descriptive title than the one above; this musical revue combines, yes, songs about trains with fictional accounts of workers, mostly immigrants, whose lives were shaped by the building and maintenance of the US railroad system. It's a sprawling series of snapshots ranging from the Andrew Jackson Administration to just the other day, a collage of words and music designed to honestly reframe the American epic in terms of those who really built this country. It's an urgent, necessary idea and I wish it worked better than it currently does.

As it stands, Songs About Trains consists of two elements that somehow don't connect in the electric way that surely its creators intend. The first is a series of letters mostly from railroad workers to loved ones; although contrived for this project, they feel like the authentic voices of those erased from official accounts. For example, we hear from Sean, a young Irishman who comes here in 1830, barely surviving the trip. ("Let's just say they call them 'coffin ships' for a reason," he notes.) Before long, he is hired to dig ditches and drive spikes, joining the effort to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with the intercontinental railroad. It's backbreaking work but he makes a dollar a day -- not chicken feed in those days -- and he openly dreams of bringing his parents to live with him, until he is felled by a cholera outbreak. It's a poignant account of a promising life snuffed out by an indifferent fate.

Other stories feature commensurate tales of hardship. Ah-Ten, a Chinese laborer, recounts working through dozens of ice storms. Others have a dynastic aspect. The Latino Rubén is hired as a fireman in 1935; half a century later, his son advocates for workers' right at the US Capitol. A Black sharecropper leaves his family behind in Mississippi in 1860, pursuing railroad work in Nebraska. (In the single most heartbreaking moment, he writes his wife three years later, asking, "Do you still call me husband?") A quarter of a century down the road, his son is involved in organizing Pullman porters, demanding that anyone who works 400 hours a month deserves decent pay. And still other accounts involve miscarriages of justice: An elderly Native American man recalls being kidnapped as a youth and enlisted as a scout with the US Cavalry, unwittingly collaborating in the betrayal of his people, earning congratulations from Kit Carson. They travel together on the "Iron Snake," a journey that ends in horror.

These passages have inherently gripping qualities and the accompanying cascade of songs -- including such evergreens as "Wabash Cannonball," "Midnight Special," and "Casey Jones" -- should inform the evening, created an engaging dialogue. That's not how it works out, however; the songs feel arbitrarily arranged and often irrelevant to the spoken material. The performers are skilled musicians, but their reading of the letters is often perfunctory; some are rattled off so quickly that one struggles to keep up. Given the extensive production credits -- Songs About Trains was created by the theatre company Radical Evolution with the participation of lead author Beto O'Byrne; contributors Eugenie Chan, Reginald Edmund, Rebecca Martinez, and Jay B. Muskett; and directors Martinez and Taylor Reynolds -- one suspects that the project is top-heavy with collaborators and in need of a stronger unifying vision.

This would also help explain the distinctly odd set design by Peiyi Wong, which situates the stage such that it directly faces a tiny minority of the audience, forcing everyone else to look on from the side. (Onstage seats are also available.) Also, a production that would benefit from a simple, direct presentation isn't helped by lighting designer María-Cristina Fusté's overreliance on saturated color. I rush to add that Lux Haac's costumes and Margaret Montagna's sound design are solid contributions. But, overall, the production is presented in a way that mutes its impact.

It's a puzzlement. The ingredients are there for a soul-stirring evening. The cast members have their moments, for example when Sara Ornelas lets loose with an unearthly wail, when Cedric Lama takes part in some fierce guitar-picking, or when C.K. Edwards engages in a furiously insistent tap routine. But none of this prevents a sense of drift from setting in. Songs About Trains is something very much needed in this racist and xenophobic era, and it has the power to reach beyond the usual left-leaning New York theatre audience to a much broader constituency. But it wants better direction and design -- and, more than that, a clearer vision of what it wants to do. A stunning piece of work is standing by, waiting to be realized. --David Barbour


(20 April 2022)

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