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"God's Country", by Erik Johnke and Elaine Chelton, at New York Musical Theatre Festival
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"God's Country", by Erik Johnke and Elaine Chelton, at New York Musical Theatre Festival

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God’s Country

Book & Lyrics by Erik Johnke
Music by Elaine Chelton

Directed by Craig J. George
Choreographer: Thomas Sabella-Mills

The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
At The Pershing Square Signature Center

480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
(NYMF) 212.352.3101

Nick Cartell, Charlie Levy, Rob Lorey, Megan Kane, Chuck Bradley
Jody Cook, Lulu Lloyd, JP Qualters, Victoria Huston-Elem

Orchestra: Bryan L. Wade, Keyboards, Bob Mastro, Violin
Skip Ward, Bass, David Sonneborn, Drums and Percussion

Musical Director & Vocal Arranger: Bryan L. Wade
Scenic Design: Jonathan Collins
Costume Design: Claire Aquila
Lighting Design: Richard Tatum
Casting: Cindi Rush
General Manager: Suellen Vance
Publicity: Lester Schecter
Stage Manager: Raynelle Wright
Associate Director: Geoffrey Goldberg
Asst. Stage Manager: Mae Frankeberger
Fight Director: Shad Ramsey

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
July 23, 2013

Erik Johnke and Elaine Chelton have created one of the most mesmerizing new musicals to be seen this season. Mr. Johnke, who wrote book and lyrics, is a seasoned playwright who has seen success in regional and New York theater communities. Ms. Chelton has been reviewed in this magazine as solo pianist for New York City Ballet. She’s also a seasoned song writer and composer for New York theatre and cabaret. Their new musical, God’s Country had five performances at this season’s New York Musical Theatre Festival. Tonight, the Linney Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center was packed. Soon after Bryan Wade cued up his band and the stage lights dimmed, the audience was transported to a boat on the Atlantic, in 1871, as James Watson, a distinguished young Englishman, left his angry adoptive father, after Mrs. Watson’s death, on the news that his birth mother is Irish and alive in America. The historical thread of late 19th Century immigration to lower Manhattan and its dingy, devilish neighborhoods, where only the thick-skinned survived, wove a stunning tale of longing, betrayal, estrangement, intimacy, envy, deception, danger, friendship, corruption, and redemption.

James (Nick Cartell) first searches for his birth mother, Marion Doyle (Victoria Huston-Elem), by placing a trick ad in an English newspaper, offering $1, and Tom Killian (Chuck Bradley) helps him out. Tom is James’ “heavy”, his Irish guard to fend off the anti-English thugs. James calls himself Patrick McIreland, just to walk about Five Points (this scrappy milieu). James grows to depend on Tom, and, together, they found and build an Irish newspaper, to fill an obvious void in communication and esteem. James had taught Tom to read, and Tom owed his business acumen to his friend. But, soon Tom published headlines exposing James’ English identity, in his effort to steal the company. Subsequently James proves the depth of his character, and Tom repays the favor in the final scene. A connected plot twist has James and Tom competing for the hand of Kathleen Cahill (Lulu Lloyd), who’s been living a triple life: the daughter of a hard-working but thuggish father (Rob Lorey as Mr. Cahill), a temperance preacher, who tries liquor and loves it, and the yearning woman who’s afraid to leave home for the one man she wants.

The musical production runs over two hours, and the plot thickens with Protestant-Catholic parade uprisings, political street scuffles, a construction crew on the Brooklyn Bridge, and more. But, what draws the eye and ear are the songs, choreography, and lighting, all fine-tuned to maximize the gestalt. Irish kick dancing, Irish pubs, a jail cell, the construction site, and an engagement ring all bring forth musicality, that’s at once muscular and eloquent, poignant and percussive, symphonic and sincere. Elaine Chelton’s score adds bits of previous songs as lead-ins to adjoining scenes, so the harmonies flow fluidly and rhythmically, making Mr. Johnke’s poetic dialogue so profound. A few songs, “Welcome to America”, “An Honest Man”, “True Love”, and “God’s Country” all resonate, well into the walk home. Nick Cartell filled the central role of James with exuberance and confidence. In fact, for a show with only five performances, not one actor faltered on a line throughout the evening. Lulu Lloyd was every bit the conflicted Kathleen, and both Lulu and Nick sang with clear tones and lilting phrases. Rob Lorey, who has been reviewed in this magazine for his vocal performances at City Ballet, was the quintessential father here (he was both Mr. Watson and Mr. Cahill), and he sang with his usual gusto and depth of tone.

Filling out the expansive cast, Jody Cook, as the treacherous Solomon McCreedy, is a vocalist and actor to watch, with exceptional talent, as is Chuck Bradley as Tom Killian, who shifts moods persuasively and sings with fervor. Megan Kane as Sarah and Molly has effusively warm stage presence, and Charlie Levy, as the Deck Hand and Foreman, was perfectly cast. JP Qualters as Seamus O’Hanlon and the Policeman was a fine actor and dancer, and Victoria Huston-Elem brought refinement and fascination to her role as Marion Doyle. Craig George directed for nuance, sensitivity, and strong vocal projection. Thomas Sabella-Mills choreographed large and smaller ensemble dancing and motion with an eye for aesthetics, while Richard Tatum’s lighting had the backdrop of this new theater shifting in bright colors for scenic effects. Jonathan Collins added old leather suitcases and barrels as historical props and as ledges and pedestals. Claire Aquila’s costumes were authentic period attire. Kudos to Erik Johnke and Elaine Chelton for this fine and memorable production. Hopefully we’ll find this show preparing to open again in the coming season. It deserves a long and robust run.

The Cast of "God's Country"
Courtesy of Steven Rosen

Lulu Lloyd as Kathleen Cahill and Rob Lorey as Mr. Cahill
Courtesy of Steven Rosen

Nick Cartell as James Watson and The Cast of "God's Country"
Courtesy of Steven Rosen

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at