They had me at “$800 for supplies”.
FLASHBACK to elementary school. A much shorter version of your critic has just received excellent news. Recess has been cancelled due to rain! For the fifth time this week!
Cheers from my classmates! Especially we nerds! Off we race to the computer lab (read: five Commodores in the library) to fight over who gets to pop in that 5” floppy and start the mad dash from Missouri to well … pretty much where we were sitting at the time.
Such a studious lot we were too, so eager to experience local history in edutainment form. Oh, yeah, and ruthlessly slaughter every furry creature west of the Mississippi. Confession: for years I thought the “Oregon Trail” video game had been made JUST FOR US, as a reward for being the descendants of proud pioneers. Seriously. Side effect: I’m pretty sure my 4th grade class was responsible for the near-extinction of species Bison bison. Sorry about that.
So, yeah, I’m pretty much the target audience for The Oregon Trail: Quest for the West! (exclamation point theirs), No. 11 Production’s act of naked pandering to Generation Y-Not-Kill-All-The-Buffalo? Watching this show was the theatrical equivalent of snorting half a kilo of the finest pharmaceutical grade nostalgia. But you’re probably waiting for this regressing critic to fight through the tears for his lost childhood and actually report on whether or not the show is good.
Well, it is. Yay! Could be great too, someday, but at the moment it seems a little padded. Which is especially odd given the whole thing’s over in an hour. No. 11 seems to have produced Oregon Trail with two warring impulses: a) spoof the heck out of the eponymous video game with plenty of that new-fangled audience interaction hip young audiences crave these days or b) make a standard, well-crafted, entirely old-fashioned song-and-dance musical.
When they stick to Plan A, Oregon Trail is a riotous, audience-ribbing good time.
A dapper Narrator (a game Max Schneller, pun intended) leads us through the various choices and activities, successfully recreating key elements of the original software. Over the course of the evening, the audience is tasked with such fate-determining choices as a profession for wagon leader Jebediah, supplies for the journey (Spent it all on ammo back in the day. Maybe a little food if I was feeling merciful.), and which way to head at various crossroads.
At least, there are choices in theory. In practice, No. 11 blatantly stacks the deck with the occasional promise of action and/or ripped abs. But it’s all in good, slightly bloodthirsty, fun. I mean, was there anybody who DIDN’T choose to ford the river as a kid? And if you didn’t, what is it like being A TOTAL WUSS?
For those who haven’t played the game or cracked a history book, Oregon Trail concerns a group of pioneers fleeing hard lives in the urban East for the promise of prosperity in the ever-so Wild West. The party, made up of siblings Jebediah (John Bambery, blessed with leading man good looks and pipes to match) and Hope (a generally great Haley Greenstein, also blessed with a powerful voice) and hired hands Jeff Smith, Brian Walters and Julie Congress who portray characters with names I won’t spoil.
Trouble hits when the ensemble tries be all respectable and engage in such unnecessary foppery as a plot. A murder-mystery story line involving Jebediah and Hope’s lost parents feels particularly out of place and strangely dark amidst the rest of the inspired insanity and ends in the weakest song of the night. Most of the cast also has a book credit so maybe it’s a case of too-many cooks threatening to spoil the script?
Not that everything has to be sweetness and light. After all, as everyone knows, the Oregon Trail was RIFE with swift-acting dysentery. Lyricists Rebecca G. Greenstein and Danny Tieger’s songs are well-crafted, completely inoffensive, and funny enough to land on just the right side of ingratiating.
Director Ryan Emmons and Choreographer Nora Beckenstein keep a well-rehearsed cast moving briskly and throw in a few old-school dance numbers to boot. Another smart move: live orchestration. All too often this kind of live music serves to distract from or overshadow the vocals. Not so here. Nicely done.
One wonders if No. 11 felt the need to pad the length of the show to placate the subset of theater-goers that base their ticket-buying decisions on some sort of minute-per-dollar value equation. Personally, I’d rather see 45 minutes of tight, engaging theater audience-participation infused insanity, than an hour of a show that skirts wearing out its welcome.
Thus ends the hyper-critical portion of this review. Frequent Fringers – No.11 have returned to DC with perhaps the most polished show at this year’s Fringe. Major props go out to the design team of costumer (and ingratiating cast member) Julie Congress, lighting designer Maura Cordial (loved the cookfire) and darn-good prop designer (and member of the writing team) Jen Neads.
And thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you, Dear No.11 for the faultlessly proper pronunciation of Or-a-gun! Kudos and cred from a native! In the hours prior to performance I was practicing my huffy flight from the theater at the first whisper of Ore-a-GONE. Heckfire and tarnation, they even managed the oft-mutilated “Willamette”! Bonus points! Or in video game parlance: FLAWLESS VICTORY.
The Oregon Trail …. has only 2 more performances at the Mountain at Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC.