A warm wave of perfect harmony splashes over the audience as soon as the lights signal the start of “The Haunted Train,” a new musical that questions the treatment of mental health patients. The eerie blue lighting and cinderblock basement in the lowest stage at Theater for the New City is haunting with a sparse set reminiscent of a jail cell and lined by the five person cast in the opening number.
Seconds into the start of the act and it’s clear that a crew of unusually good singers will be guiding the audience through the story with vocal arrangements by Trevor Pierce.
The cinderblock and exposed pipe just add to the overall mood of the musical and if the metal frame bed and bare sink next to a basic toilet were staged on an all black traditional stage it would feel just as strange as if a character were missing. Writers Christian Fleming and Randy Lee Gross have created a very pointed musical that doesn’t conceal a social agenda behind metaphors or even the masterful voices. The questionnaire and the Q&A at the end of the show say everything that needs to be said about that message.
That doesn’t mean people who typically avoid shows with a particularly strong agenda should stay away. On the contrary, this show may make even the staunchest opponent a believer that agendas can be packaged in an appealing musical.
“The Haunted Train” follows the path of Cloyd, played by Jarrad Green, as he struggles to be released from a mental facility and the damaging electroconvulsive therapy treatments administered by Dr. Barnes, played by Michael Cusimano. Not helping his case is a ghost named Gizzard, played by J.D. Killikelly, who was a wrongly imprisoned Civil Rights marcher now staying on this planet to make sure her truth gets told.
Fighting, unsuccessfully, on the side of Cloyd is social worker Rosemary, played by Lindsay Lerner, and journalist Solomon, played by Jessie MacBeth.
The music and lyrics, written by Christopher Anselmo, are critical to the piece. It moves the story forward, but more than that, it almost comes off as a set of musical numbers interrupted by lines. These aren’t frivolous refrains either, each character has a natural complexity explored through the book and lyrics, all in a tight 100 minute, no intermission run.
Yes, Cloyd is being wrongfully treated, but he has his reasons why he is interned. The effects of the electroconvulsive therapy are so strikingly obvious it’s hard not to wonder if they keep Green locked up and only let him out for show time. His voice is comparable to Jason Mraz and his constantly twitching hands and feet would be comfortable side by side to a jackhammer without an off switch. He commands each scene, but the natural ebb and flow between him and Killikelly’s ghost set up some of the strongest moments.
Having a “ghost” on stage that the audience can obviously see but only one character can see nearly the entirety of the play comes with a whole set of challenges. It’s not only well handled, but believable as well. When Killikelly breaks out into a soulful song called “Hit The Rails,” everything else at that moment is superfluous. The ghost’s position in the musical, in part, is to compare the fight during the Civil Rights movement with the civil rights of mental patients.
The side conflicts between Rosemary and Solomon and Rosemary and Dr. Barnes add a different edge and perspective. The character studies of Rosemary’s approach to helping Cloyd versus Solomon’s approach is a story in itself, and their conflict over treatment is one of the strongest in the show.
Dr. Barnes encapsulates everything that is easy to dislike about strong doctor characters. Don’t write him off, however. Look closely, if only to admire Cusimano’s performance, and the character of Dr. Barnes is deeper than expected.
Passions flare toward the end of the play and the agenda pushing goes from gentle to aggressive. The ending is almost flat, partly because the completion of the musical comes close to playing second fiddle to getting out the message, which is difficult to accept because of how powerful and engaging the story is.
As for the actors: keep an eye out for their names on play bills because every time the chance to hear each one of their voices is missed is one time too many.