Songs About Trains is certainly a theme-appropriate title for the piece currently playing at the New Ohio Theatre, but the subtitle A Celebration of Labor Through Folk Music carries the heart of it. An ensemble cast of eight have assembled to sing, stomp, pluck and wail their way through a variety of songs about trains, most unfamiliar to the listener, underscoring the music with stories and experiences of the immigrants and minorities who spent countless, grueling hours building the U.S. railroad system across generations and centuries. This collection of stories is told through letters which the cast read aloud, letters written by Black American, Chinese, Mexican, Native American and Irish workers who toiled against brutal conditions and long hours for little pay, even less respect, but with much danger and suffering.
As the audience waits for the show to begin, the sound design by Margaret Montagna sets an excellent mood for the show, with the occasional sounds of physical labor blending in with the pre-show music. The set design by Peiyi Wong creates a perfect environment for the songs and stories to be told; there are a couple of levels for the actors to work on, with rocks and lamps placed here and there, giving the suggestion of tunnel work surrounding the players. In addition to the traditional audience seating, charmingly mis-matched chairs are placed on stage and at stage left, creating a theater in the round (or more literally, theater in a triangle).
As a piece of theater, Songs About Trains is earnest and unique. Lead author (and performer) Beto O’Byrne along with contributing authors Eugenie Chan, Reginald Edmund, Jay B Muskett and Rebecca Martínez (who also co-directs) have constructed a work that’s not definitely a musical and not quite a play, but more of a performance piece which sews stories together with music, dance and songs.
Co-directors Martínez and Taylor Reynolds have orchestrated something special with this material, although it can be said that there were a couple of places in the show where it could have ended perfectly, yet it kept going. Perhaps the arrangement of the stories and scenes could have been shuffled around a bit for a more singular build, climax and denouement. Also of note: although the theater is technically in the round, the cast largely presents forward, so audience members who choose to sit in the on-stage chairs see the actors’ backs most of the time. Helpfully, the lighting design by María-Cristina Fusté is literally spot on, making sure the audience’s focus falls onto each actor during the show’s many transitions.
Speaking of the actors, the cast is truly sensational. The performers not only demonstrate deep sincerity in their acting, but they’re terrific singers, they move well, and they play one or more instruments with the same dexterity one might show when switching between a pen and a pencil. O’Byrne never leaves his seat but his moments in focus are confident and centered. C.K. Edwards brings a quiet strength to the stage, until he explodes into what can only be described as a tap “rant,” a moment that is truly a highlight of the show.
Christian A. Guerrero’s truth and tenderness run deep, and performer/music director/arranger Julián Mesri corrals the cast musically with a delicate passion (although with his eyes closed much of the time). Sara Ornelas brings a fiery brightness to her parts, and Jessica Ranville reveals a sensitive and vulnerable tenderness in her readings and singing. Cedric Lamar is a strong and powerful presence, and Xiaoqing Zhang is simply amazing. The actors shine each in their own way, yet they perform terrifically as an ensemble, genuinely listening and interacting with each other, enriching the experience of the show for themselves, ultimately to the fine benefit of the audience.
Toward the end, a strong theme emerges among the stories being read by the cast revealing that the railroad workers were all “searching for the land where life is good and happiness is plentiful.” A wistful yet beautiful sentiment for those times, as well as for today. There is much to hear, see, feel and experience in this beautifully presented Songs About Trains.
Songs About Trains (April 5 – 23, 2022)
Working Theater, Radical Evolution and The New Ohio Theatre, an Archive Residency premiere in partnership with IRT Theatre
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St #1E, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.newohiotheatre.org/programs/archive-residency/songs-about-trains/
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission