The New York Musical Festival is in full swing this summer. Celebrating its 13th year, the festival’s mission is to “nurture the creation, production, and public presentation of stylistically, thematically, and culturally diverse new musicals to ensure the future vitality of musical theater.” That’s a bold statement, and for anyone that’s attempted to create a new musical, a vital need.
Creating a new work that integrates storytelling, music and movement is wrought with challenges. Character development, plot, and musical cohesion are just a few of the stumbling blocks that trip up new lyricists, composers and authors. Oftentimes the creative team will opt for linear storytelling, but on occasion, it makes more sense to approach a work as a mosaic. Such is the case with the haunting new musical Nickel Mines (book by Andrew Palermo and Shannon Stoeke, music and lyrics by Dan Dyer).
Based on the horrific events that occurred on October 2, 2006 at an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Nickel Mines delves into the story behind a shooting that left five young schoolgirls dead and three injured. Palermo (who also directed and choreographed the piece) and Stoeke approach the work’s structure much like The Laramie Project: a series of vignettes that tell the story not so much of killer Charles Roberts, but rather the community that he profoundly affected through his actions.
Loosely framed by Samuel (Morgan Hollingsworth), a fictional character that represents the boys who were ordered to leave the schoolhouse that day, the young ensemble explores the lives of the murdered girls and their families, as well as the aftermath faced by Roberts’ surviving family.
Palermo’s dynamic direction and choreography breathe life into the sensitive material, imbuing it with a modern theatricality. (Aided by Sera Bourgeau’s terrific costumes.) Dyer’s score is filled with bluegrass, country, gospel, and an indie edge. Combined, it makes for an emotionally resonant theatrical work if you can set aside the fact that much of it juxtaposes the simple Amish way of life. Most of the Amish songbook is based on the High German songbook (Ausbund) and often song without accompaniment. Dyer uses some of these hymns as a springboard for a number of musical passages.
The bigger story in the aftermath of the Lancaster shooting was the Amish community’s response, which was one of forgiveness and healing. Nearing its tenth anniversary this fall, it’s harrowing to think of the continued gun violence that plagues our nation and the world at large. It’s a hard pill to swallow in this day and age, where it seems like madness prevails in what we once thought were safe communities.
Nickel Mines doesn’t provide definitive answers to what happened on that fateful October morning, but it does spark a dialogue about the intersection of faith and forgiveness in a way that honors its victims and survivors.
Looking to explore more at the New York Musical Festival? Visit www.nymf.org.