“Orphan Train” opens upon a hopeless scene indeed. Mist creeps across the stage as ragged, abandoned children huddle together for comfort. A shrouded, unearthly figure sings an eerie lullaby. It’s a mighty dark start to History Theatre’s holiday offering.

The show has resurfaced at History Theatre roughly every 10 years since its debut in 1997. Patty Lynch’s script, with music and lyrics by Charlie Maguire, explores a unique adoption scheme begun in the mid-19th century. Over a period of about 75 years, well-meaning aid organizations shipped thousands of orphaned children from large cities on the East Coast to the Midwest. When the children arrived in a new town, they would be put on display to be selected, or not, to join new families.

Lynch embodies the various fates of these children through the interwoven story lines of five fictional orphans. By far the unhappiest ending awaits defiant teenager Aloysius, played by Ryan London Levin, when he’s adopted by a violent and sadistic drunk (Terry Hempleman in a creepily menacing turn). Levin has a strong, engaging stage presence as a ne’er-do-well rebel and leader of the abandoned children, while he and fellow orphan Sally Ann (Devon Cox) provide some of the musical’s most poignant moments as they seek comfort from the storm that rages, sometimes literally, around them.

The rest of these young people arrive at happier endings. T. Mychael Rambo, as a buffalo soldier turned blacksmith, charms both the audience and his traumatized adoptee as he ever so carefully shepherds her into her new family. Carl Schoenborn and Melanie Wehrmacher, as a couple of warmly sympathetic German shopkeepers, assist in reuniting their new son with the sister who was separately adopted. The strong adult ensemble also includes Peter Thomson as the children’s sternly benevolent overseer and Norah Long as a softhearted aid worker.

Directors Ron Peluso and Anya Kremenetsky capably manage the varied tones of these story lines, mostly keeping the emotional heft of the play from shading into saccharine sweetness. Maguire’s music offers an atmospheric, folksy counterpoint to the action, although some of the musical numbers take on an oddly mechanical quality due to some awkward choreography on the part of Emily Michaels King. It’s also a disappointment that the powerful voices of Rambo and Long don’t get more play; Rambo’s rendition of “Orphan Train” is a high point of the show.

“Orphan Train” certainly has its bleak and uncomfortable moments, but contains just enough light to send audiences out with a little warm hope.

 

Who: Book by Patty Lynch. Music and lyrics by Charlie Maguire. Directed by Ron Peluso and Anya Kremenetsky. Musical direction by Andrew Fleser.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Fri.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 18.

Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.

Cost: $15-$52. 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com

 

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.