Hauntingly heartwarming — All are aboard for a new musical holiday offering, penned by Liz Orndorff and Scott Brown 

Published 7:00 am Saturday, November 25, 2017

Liz Orndorff read about the Orphan Train Movement about 30-40 years ago. She came across a newspaper clipping about it a while back.
“I cut things out and save them. The newspaper is where most of my ideas come from …” the local playwright says. So was born “The Orphan Train,” Orndorff’s latest creation she just finished penning in January. The play will be up for three weekends at West T. Hill Community Theatre, opening Friday, Dec. 1.
Orndorff explains the story of the trains, running from New York City in the mid 1800s, operated by the Children’s Aid Society. The organization took 30,000 street kids, gathered them up and sent them to other parts of the country.
“They started passing laws about not being able to transport children across state lines for this reason, they knew this wasn’t right. It’s been called a bad solution to an even worse problem …” Orndorff says. Kids who were shuttled into other states were told to keep it quiet they came from the train — not to tell anyone they came off of the orphan train.
“Seventy-five years later, it wasn’t until 1929 that the foster care system was put in place. So in the 30s, since these laws were enacted about transporting kids, some states — like Kentucky — started doing it within the state. It ended around World War II,” Orndorff says.
But since they had been instructed to keep quiet about their journeys, it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s it came to light. “People started reading their grandparents’ diaries, found about they rode the orphan train,” Orndorff says.
As melancholy as it sounds, Orndorff says what she did with the story is convert it into a holiday tale of sorts.
“Scott Brown was asking me about a musical last summer, West T. is always looking for a Christmas play,” she says. The theater needed a new one. “I thought about these orphans, finding new homes. Finding a new family.”
After brainstorming the idea with Brown, who is the composer of the musical numbers, the two presented the idea to Karen Logue, the theater’s managing director.
“She bought it!” Orndorff says cheerily. Not only did she buy into it, but she offered to direct it — something Orndorff jumped at, with Logue’s extensive background working with large casts and children.
“And the music is lovely. Scott is extremely talented. We would be talking about a scene, I’d tell Scott my idea, what I needed, and he’d deliver. Very talented,” Orndorff says. 
She says the music creates a “lovely balance” — there are some ensembles, some solos, several where the children sing together …
“Overall, it’s happy. I didn’t go into the negative side. It’s mentioned, but doesn’t go into it,” Orndorff says. There are stories of children basically being turned into laborers, left on farms to work long days.
“But this piece, it’s very sappy and emotional,” Orndorff says. She recently watched a rehearsal and said she surprisingly found herself with tears streaming down her face. It’s just touching, she says.
Set in Danville in 1917, the play tells the story of 200 orphans who arrived in Kentucky — an actual fact Orndorff found through research after tracking someone down with the Children’s Aid Society. During the orphan train period, 200,000 children were taken from the East Coast to the rest of America.
“I’ve never directed a musical where I am unfamiliar with the music, so this is a first for me …” Logue says. “I’ve always known the tunes. It’s all brand new music, so that’s been my biggest challenge.”
Logue calls the music hauntingly beautiful.
“Some are toe-tappers, too. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they become holiday songs, favorites?”
The costuming seems dead-on for the era, too.
“Alice Berka! She did all of that,” Logue says, of her trusty stage-manager for years. Logue says at this point, she couldn’t even guess how many shows they’ve done together.
“The costumes are very important to her, and it shows. Of course now they can research the era on the internet and see what they have at home and run it by her,” Logue says.
Although “hauntingly beautiful” is a compliment, composer Brown says he’d describe the music as fun and heartwarming.
“This experience has been incredible for me. This is my first musical, and collaborating with Liz Orndorff has been such a joy,” Brown says. He says he especially enjoyed becoming the characters he was writing about.
“For example, in the song, ‘If I Could Live Inside My Dreams,’ I became that orphan and thought about all the things I would dream about. In ‘My Beautiful Orange,’ I became that orphan, and wondered what it would be like to have nothing for Christmas, and how special an orange would be.”
Brown says he hopes the audience feels that same spirit from the characters and the music.
“I hope they walk away moved by the story, wanting to see more,” Brown says. “I also hope they go home humming the tunes of the songs they just heard.”
The full cast of ‘The Orphan Train’
Matt Walter, Julie Taylor, Larry Kendrick, Zane Arnold, Bailey Alexander, Steve Rinehart, Jean Blair, D. Todd Littlefield, Luane Littlefield, Pete Kendrick, Diane Draper, Chuck Taylor, Susie Kendrick, Elijah Brown, Avery England, Caroline Blakeman, Josiah Lynes, Henry Sheene, Lilla Walter, Mae Pierce, Kate Farmer, Kole Kendrick, Eli Powell, Maggie Powell, Campbell Johnson, Dorie Brown, Isaac Brown and Olivia Lynes.
“The Orphan Train” by Liz Orndorff and Scott Brown
Friday-Sunday, Dec. 1-3; Dec. 8-10 and Dec. 15-17 at West T. Hill Community Theatre
Shows are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: westthill.net or (859) 319-0205.

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