Off Broadway

Songs About Trains: A Celebration of Labor Through Folk Music That Needs More Structure

Songs About Trains: A Celebration of Labor Through Folk Music That Needs More Structure

Photo by Valerie Terranova

“Freight Train” is an American folk song written by Elizabeth Cotten. Cotten was a one-time nanny to folk singer Peggy Seeger, who took the song with her to England.
British songwriters Paul James and Fred Williams subsequently misappropriated the song as their own and copyrighted it. Under the advocacy of the influential Seeger family, the copyright was eventually restored to Cotten.
We don’t learn this information until the end of Songs About Trains: A Celebration of Labor Through Folk Music presented by Working Theater, Radical Evolution, and New Ohio Theatre. This ambitious effort needs to be more developed, as we never learn why we are really here. Part of this is because book writer Beto O’Byrnenever sets this up, nor do contributing authors: Eugenie Chan, Reginald Edmund, Rebecca Martínez and Jay Muskett.
The show starts off like a concert with the cast of talented musicians featuring: C.K. Edwards, Christian A. Guerrero, Cedric Lamar, Julián Mesri, Beto O’Byrne, Sara Ornelas, Jessica Ranville and Xiaoqing Zhang impressing us playing an array of instruments. 21 historical folk songs get blended in with fictional letters that don’t tell the whole story, let alone the most important pieces of history. This blight on society and human kind is ripe with information most people do not know. Where the building of the Transcontinental Railroad used mostly the Chinese, represented by Xiaoqing Zhang, who plays a fabulous violin, the entire southern railroad network,  built during the slavery era, was built almost exclusively by slaves. For that we get a C.K. Edwards who impressively tap dances up a storm, yet we are not given the information really of why. Mexican’s working on the railroads were actually hidden until the book “Traqueros: Mexican Railroad Workers In The United States, 1870-1930” was released in 2012. The first immigrants to work on the railroads were actually the German’s, Italians and the Irish. The former does get represented by Christian A. Guerrero, the others do not.

Christian A. Guerrero and Sara Ornelas Photo by Valerie Terranova.

Many died due to disease and the labor extensive grueling work. The amount is staggering. The owners wanton disregard for public safety, was strictly due to greed and who owned the railroads were the most powerful men in the country. This should also have been included into this piece.
The performers each have moments to shine and all sing well together with Christian A. Guerrero, Cedric Lamar and Xiaoqing Zhang vocally stand out. Jessica Ranville stands out in the acting department reading the letters from Native American’s fork lore.

Sara Ornelas, Xiaoqing Zhang Photo by Valerie Terranova.

Directors Rebecca Martínez and Taylor Reynolds do a good job with what is available, as does choreographer Joya Powell. That tap dance number is spectacular. What stands out is the musical director and arrangements by Julián Mesri, who is also in the show.

Beto O’Byrne and Julian Mesri Photo by Valerie Terranova.

The theatre itself is strangely set up, though it works. The chairs are mismatched and uncomfortable as the show is about 2 hours long. The audience is in three sections, with a stage on the forth wall. This was done by scenic designer Peiyi Wong. The costumes by Lux Haac, lighting design by María-Cristina Fusté and sound design by Margaret Montagna are well done.

Songs About Trains is a fabulous idea, that I would love to see fleshed out a little more so it carries some weight. My guest who I brought to see this show was so confused, he wasn’t even sure what he saw. Sadly I could not enlighten him. On another note programs should be handed out as the internet does not work in the theatre, therefore no programs.

Songs About Trains: A Celebration of Labor Through Folk Music  New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street until April 23rd.

Off Broadway

Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret, opera and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She has a screenplay and a TV show in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She is a proud member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle and was a nominator. Email: suzanna@t2conline.com

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