On October 2, 2006, a 32-year-old husband and father entered an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, took hostage ten girls ages 6 to 13 , shot five of them to death, critically injured the remaining five, then took his own life. Hardly the stuff of your average, everyday musical, and in fact Andrew Palermo’s Nickel Mines (co-written with Shannon Stoeke and Dan Dyer) proves neither average nor everyday but something quite extraordinary indeed, tragedy turned into art, and the power of grace as it may never have been shown before.
Extraordinary proves a fitting way of describing the families of those slain and wounded girls, whose forgiveness of their attacker and embrace of his grieving mother, widow, and children might seem as unfathomable to most of us as it is profoundly inspirational.
Equally inspirational is Nickel Mines, whose “work-in-progress” debut at UC Irvine will surely be but the first of many to come.
UCI is fortunate indeed to have Broadway vet Palermo, the Scenie-winning choreographer of last year’s College/University Musical Of The Year Spring Awakening, on their faculty and to have his visionary work (conception, direction, and choreography by Palermo, book by Stoeke and Palermo, music and lyrics by Dyer) quite literally “onstage” at the Claire Trevor Theatre.
Palermo’s brilliance is evident from Nickel Mines’ striking opening number “10-2-2006,” which depicts the minutes leading up to the shooting—and the shooting itself—in mesmerizing dance.
Words then take over as cast member Morgan Hollingsworth strums and sings “Song Of Samuel,” recounting in song—and in as stunning a voice as you’re likely to discover any time soon—the events of that fateful day.
Over the rest of Nickel Mines’ intermissionless ninety minutes, Stoeke and Palermo’s powerful book, Dyer’s gorgeous songs, and Palermo’s graceful, dramatic, evocative choreography give us one deeply emotional vignette after another of lives transformed by a man named Charles Carl Roberts IV, who until October 2nd had been nothing more to the Pennsylvania Dutch community living in Bart Township than the man who delivered their milk every morning.
“There Was A Mother” juxtaposes the grief of two mothers, one who gave birth two of the victims, the other the killer’s wife and the mother of his three small children. “All Is Well With My Soul,” sung by Fisher’s mother Terri, victim Rosanna’s father, and the girls, expresses the extraordinary response of the Amish community to those who might normally have expected vilification rather than forgiveness and reconciliation. “Anna Mae” pays tribute to a 12-year-old who lost her life that October day, and to all those who paid the price for one man’s inhumanity.
Texas-based singer-songwriter Dyer has created Nickel Mines’ glorious, folk guitar-driven score, one which includes songs inspired by the Amish hymnal—the women’s “Loblied/Ordnung” (Amish hymns of praise and guidelines for daily living) and the men’s “Ausbund 107:22”—and others that give insight into the events of October 2nd, and the community’s reactions in the days that followed.
As for those who might beg to differ with the Amish response to what most would likely find the most unforgivable of crimes, writers Stoeke, Palermo, and Dyer give voice to that view as well, in a father-son confrontation that proves one of the evening’s most powerful moments.
It is hard to imagine a more gifted cast, student or professional, than the undergrads gracing this very first production of Nickel Mines.
Heidi Bjorndahl (Naomi Rose Ebersol), Elora Casados (Esther King), Haylee Cotta (Lena Zook Miller), Rachelle Clark (Rachel Ann Stoltzfus), Emma DeLaney (Marian Stoltzfus Fisher), Jamie Espiritu (Rosanna King), Madisen Johnson (Anna Mae Stoltzfus), Réanna Morris (Sarah Ann Stoltzfus), Taylor Sanders (Mary Liz Miller), and Hannah Schwartz (Barbara Stolzfus “Barbie” Fisher) are each and everyone incandescent, with Casados, Clark, and Morris spotlighted in a trio of superb “adult” performances as (respectively) Mrs. Fisher, Terri Roberts, and Marie Roberts. Spotlighted too are Johnson’s dance gifts in “Anna Mae.”
Derrick Gaffney and Alex White do outstanding work as well, Gaffney as the father of the two Fisher girls and White as the father of the profoundly wounded Rosanna (an exquisite Espiritu). Anthony Cloyd and Christopher Renfro are wonderful too as the First Responding Officers to those 911 calls and in various cameo roles.
And then there is Hollingsworth, whose voice is one you’ll be hearing for years to come and whose dramatic confrontation opposite an equally fine White makes for one of Nickel Mines’ hardest-hitting moments.
Scenic/props designer Eric Barker has the entire audience seated on either side of the Claire Trevor Theatre stage, performers appearing not only in front of but behind and above, the better to give Nickel Mines a “You Are There” quality that proves most effective. (A blackboard plays an important role in Nickel Mines as well.) Sera Bourgeau’s costumes, Brady King’s lighting, and Brian Svboda’s sound design are as thoroughly professional as they get.
Musical director Dennis Castellano once again merits highest marks for a cast’s superb vocals and for conducting a couldn’t-be-better orchestra (Castellano and programmer Peter Kerz on keyboards, Melissa Hasin and Steve Velez on cellos, Steve Carnelli and Ryan Schwalm on guitars, and Louis Allee on percussion).
Dramaturg Allison Rotstein and stage manager Ross Jackson lead a behind-the-scenes team too numerous to list here, but whose names receive deserved credit in the Nickel Mines program.
Other musicals have tackled “difficult” topics before this. (Parade and The Scottsboro Boys come immediately to mind.) Nickel Mines might well be the toughest of them all, but miracle of miracles, it works.
I’m told that the creative team consider this first full staging of Nickel Mines an as-yet unfinished work. To this reviewer, it seems pretty darned perfect as it is.
UCI Claire Trevor Theatre, UC Irvine Campus, Irvine.
June 3, 2014
Photos: Paul Kennedy