By James V. Ruocco
On the morning of October 2, 2006, a shooting took place (approximately at 11:07 a.m.) at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse located in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, a village in Bart Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk tanker truck driver who served several Amish farms and locations, entered the school, barricaded the front door, took hostages (he was armed with a semiautomatic handgun, a shotgun, a rifle and 600 rounds of ammunition) and shot ten girls (ages 6-13), killing five, before dying by suicide inside the schoolhouse.
The shooting claimed the lives of Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7; Marian Stoltzfus Fisher, 13; Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12; Lena Zook Miller, 8; and Mary Liz Miller, 7.
"They were shot execution-style," said state police commissioner colonel Jeffrey B. Miller following the shooting. "It was a horrendous crime scene.
"Roberts was a very angry man - angry with life and angry at God. He was going in there, and he was never coming out. He had no intention of coming out alive."
The events that took place that day and the aftermath of the shootings provide the framework for ACT of CT's "Nickel Mines," a hypnotic world premiere musical written for the stage by Shannon Stoeke and Andrew Palermo with music and lyrics by Dan Dyer. Meant to teach and instruct rather than sensationalize, "Nickel Mines" is a moving, humble and defining portrait of the Amish school tragedy - exquisite in execution and timely in its emotional scope and purpose - as it replays the events of that day while triggering memories of Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook.
Upfront, "Nickel Mines" is unlike anything you've seen before or are likely to expect from musical theatre.
It bruises your heart.
It is dangerous, honest and real.
It is raw.
Its layers of music are autumnal, inventive and graceful.
It is constant, explosive and determined.
And lastly, it is unforgettable.
Staging "Nickel Mines," director Andrew Palermo tackles the sensitive subject matter with simultaneous force, sensitivity, steep, contrast and chalked confidence. As interpreter, he aptly conveys the seriousness and anguish of the piece with poignant and readied acknowledgement, connection and appropriateness. Elsewhere, the darker elements of the story are unbuttoned without any form of hesitation as are the events leading up to the murders, their sting, their horror, their shock, their aftermath and finally, the linked fates of both the fallen and their survivors. This being a musical, it all makes perfect sense - and rightly so - as Palermo parallels the grave realities of the current climate into the 2006 time frame of the "Nickel Mines" story while making it palatable to the audience watching it in the darkened environs of the immersive Ridgefield-based theater.
Is it shocking?
Is it meant to disturb?
Is it meant to toy with your emotions?
Then again, that's the actual point of this production.
It is meant to shake you up and get you thinking.
But that's just the beginning.
As "Nickel Mines" evolves, Palermo, doubling as choreographer, fleshes out the story using some of the most hypnotic, surrealistic, creative and arresting movement to augment his already mesmerizing theatrical perspective. All of this is illuminated through choice, symbolic dance motions, thrusts, pauses, stances, starts, hunched postures and synchronizations designed to reflect the story's ongoing themes, tragedies, repercussions, history, traditions, afterlife and beliefs. Often cinematic, these bursts of movement, both mournful and celebratory, are laden with penetrating angst, melodrama and gash-inducing rhythms that are deeply humanist. jubilant and eclectic. The brilliance of these dancers and their impact on the pending and ongoing action is enhanced by their raw, energetic commitment, efforts and rhythmic ease as devised and executed by Palermo.
The ensemble nature of the show - a beating heart of sounds, minds, emotions, reflections and pathos - is sensitively reflected in the musical score, which features music and lyrics by Dan Dyer. The score - 16 numbers in all - conveys the depth, intensity and heartbreak of "Nickel Minds" amid the rising progressively dark forefront of the story and its characters. The songs, in order of presentation throughout the 80-minute musical are as follows: "Prologue," "October 2, 2006," "Psalm of Samuel, " Ausbund 107: 22," "It is Well," " Loblied/Ordnung," "Ausbund 76," "CR IV," "That's What a Mother is For," "Anna Mae," "Dispatch," "You Were First," "Ausbund 114," "Psalm of Samuel Verse 2," "The Happening" and "Epilogue."
As composer and lyricist, Dyer pulls all the strings - rural, traditional, lyrical, folk, hymnlike - and delivers a musical score of immersive content and atmospheric intensity, coupled with force, grace gesture and contrast. It's all very well thought out and seamless in its execution as the story unfolds and moves toward its justifiable conclusion. Each song is very much in the moment - and well it should be - as principals, supporting players and ensemble make their mark using rich sounding voices, harmonies and crisp synchronization to make Dyer's crafty, emotional lyrics heard loud and clear communicating the musical's varying messages of forgiveness, struggle, reconciliation, tragedy, shattered hearts, faith and survival.
Although the songs, the characters, the setting and the story are decidedly different from Duncan Sheik's haunting 2006 Broadway musical "Spring Awakening," the actual dynamic and thrust of "Nickel Mines," as set forth by Dyer, invites comparisons to that particular musical, which, as evidenced here on the ACT of CT stage, is meant as the highest of compliments. Channeling but not copying the "Spring Awakening" vibe, the overall presentation is brazenly confident, edgy and expressionistic as it connects the dots, so to speak, with the rawness, danger and purpose indicative of its predecessor.
The production also benefits from the inspired tutelage of Tom Cuffari, a musical director who brings a burnished fullness and passion to the material that is both natural and realistic. Shaping and addressing Dyer's fully-layered musical score, as auteur, he completely understands what the composer/lyricist wants in terms of performance, execution, story progression and interpretation. What's remarkable here is that the ebb and flow of the music - though planned and rehearsed - never feels forced, saturated or engineered. Instead, it is fresh and organic with a sound, style and harmony that is orchestrated with distinct clarity and pulse.
At the keyboard and also serving as conductor, Cuffari keeps "Nickel Minds" completely in focus, backed by a talented team of musicians - Elyse Gellert Mullen (violin), Dennis J. Arcano (drums/percussion), Jordan Jancz (electric bass), Dan Hartington (guitar), cast member Morgan Hollingsworth (acoustic guitar) - all of whom share his passion for the material. Quite fittingly, the orchestral sound is brilliant and gratifying, voiced by instrumentation that is pure, eloquent, spirited and driven.
"Nickel Mines" stars Morgan Hollingsworth, Kelsey Jenison, Mark Bradley Miller, Alex Nee, Milan Magana, Anna Cooper, Jayme Wappel, Lauren Celentano, Shea Coughlin, Josephine Rose Roberts, Emma Lou DeLaney, Hannah Joe Snyder, Eric Michael Parker and Justine Veronica Rafael. One of the most talented group of performers to grace the ACT of CT stage, this professional cast of 14 succumb to the musical's enveloping milieu with a heart-on-your-sleeve urgency and consciousness that heightens the production's edge, toughness, bravery and its ever-changing blackboard of emotions, dialogue, surfaces and surprise turns. Their work is raw. Their work is real. Their work is unified. Their work is bold. Their work is serious. Their work is synchronized. And lastly, their work is emotionally and powerfully current with the times.
You don't want to miss any of it.
A slick, stylized production that taps into a tragic, real-life story with stirring consequences, "Nickel Mines" is an intelligent piece of theatre wracked with tension. momentum, pain and shocking inevitability. It is a brave achievement for ACT of CT and one that will not be easily forgotten, nor should it be. Powerfully staged and choreographed by Andrew Palermo, it features a beguiling musical score by Dan Dyer and a visionary script co-authored by Palermo and Shannon Stoeke that is brought to life by an ensemble cast whose engrossing performances - musically and dramatically - hit hard in the manner they were intended by the production's creators.
Its energy is harnessed to thrilling effect. The mood is dark and mysterious. It is a triumph of a production for all involved - told with force, boldness and volatile inspiration.