The Oregon Trail: Quest for the West!
nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
February 26, 2011
The Oregon Trail was a computer game created in the 1980s that simulated what life was like in the 1800s and allowed players the opportunity to enjoy adventures out west from the comfort of their own homes. Players were able to choose professions, buy ammunition and provisions, name various family members, and set off in search of a better life, which presumably was in Oregon. To get there, they had to first battle starvation, bandits, deadly rivers, diseases and, in The Oregon Trail: Quest for the West!, a musical version of the game, occasionally each other.
Those familiar with The Oregon Trail game will no doubt be enthralled by this musical, which takes a humorous approach to what was in reality a very scary undertaking with such a small chance of survival that it bordered on absurd. That absurdity is transformed into an hour of musical hilarity thanks to the crew at No.11 Productions. The show is definitely better than the game, as it offers singing, dancing, a possible murder, and, of course, the opportunity for love.
The Oregon Trail: Quest for the West! is interactive, like the game, but in a way that won’t make audience members uncomfortable. As in a choose-your-own-adventure novel, the audience gets to decide things like the occupation of the party’s leader, Jebediah; what method to employ to get the group across a nasty raging river; and, for those lucky enough to be seated in the first three rows, balls to throw at the cast, cattle, deer, and one wily rabbit in an effort to feed the party after their rations run out within the first six days.
Also just like in the game, the party is attacked by thieves and Native Americans, suffers through myriad diseases (all at once, as it happens) and lose their wagon wheels. One of them actually dies, but instead of bringing a somber note to this otherwise hilarious show, it’s really very funny; so funny, in fact, we’d say it is one of the best deaths we’ve ever seen on stage.
Who dies? Well, we can’t tell you that. Does the party ever actually make it to Oregon? We can’t tell you that, either, and it might depend on what the audience decides. What we can tell you is that the show is funny and witty, and the singing is refreshingly good.
John Bambery, who plays the party’s leader Jebediah, has a voice reminiscent of Robert Goulet (but in a good way). Haley Greenstein, who plays his sister, Hope, provides great timing, a real commitment to traipsing around the wilderness in 13 layers of clothing, and that rare glimpse of comedic female talent so often missing from the stage. Julie Congress, who also lends her talents to co-authoring the show’s book and providing fun but believable costumes, is hilarious as a bawdy, gun-wielding, one-eyed sharp shooter who’s looking for love on the trail as much as something to shoot at. Brian Walters, who plays Asdfjkl; (a name constructed by impatience at the keyboard; remember, there was a time when people actually played games on a computer and not an X-Box), Roger Mulligan, and narrator Max Schneller round out the solid cast, all of whom seem game for whatever the audience decides. Ryan Emmons’s directing is engaging and balances pace and structure with letting the actors have fun in their roles. The small stage didn’t feel so small with the way choreographer Nora Beckenstein somehow created more space by using every inch of it!
To be honest, it is apparent that the notion that the audience has control in choosing what happens to the actors is a contrived one, but it’s enjoyable all the same. And, the results can vary, just as the audience score varies after each performance. Sadly, we placed second behind the previous night’s audience. Our guess is they chose not to pay the exorbitantly high toll on the toll road, but who knows.
As mentioned, the costumes are fun and relevant, but the set design just about runs off with the show. It’s amazing what a few simple props can do to transform a little black box theatre into the Western wilderness. The two papier maché oxen are the cutest things we’ve ever seen on stage, and the wagon—complete with wheels, an axle, and a tongue—is functional, cute, and just rickety enough to be funny in its own right.
The sound design and keyboard work by Enrico de Trizio (who is somewhat inexplicably on stage the whole time but also dressed for the time period, even if he is playing a keyboard), with music and lyrics by Rebecca Greenstein and Danny Tieger, are enjoyable and upbeat without overreaching. The book by Julie Congress, director Ryan Emmons, Jen Neads, and Zach Fithian works hard to achieve the level of hilarity for which it is earnestly reaching.
Even if you’re not familiar with The Oregon Trail game you will laugh and have a good time at everything that befalls the quintet. Sure, you might not get some of the inside jokes, like how the characters move and the shooting of a bear, but with such an amiable cast and that fabulous wagon, you won’t miss them.