Way, way back before the dawn of the internet, in the days when Microsoft was DOS (not Windows) and PCs were called by their full name (Personal Computers) and learning institutions were oufitted with Apple IIe’s, there was a game that infiltrated homes and schools across America. A game that put you in the role of the leader of a group of interpid pioneers trudging across more than 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri to the fabled land of Oregon in the year 1848 along the Oregon Trail. The game of Oregon Trail was one of the few educational games true to the claim of being “fun as well as educational” (at least in my school in the 1980′s), and has become extremely popular over the years. So popular that it has insprired a a great new musical by No.11 Productions for the Frigid Festival called Oregon Trail: The Quest For the West!
Personally, I really enjoyed playing the game as well as seeing the musical, but a question I was asked, adds an interesting texture to this discussion, “Do you have to have played the game before in order to enjoy the play?” It definitely helped that by being in the audience I got to relive the joy of playing Oregon Trail in more ways than one, but the play is entertaining and even moving at times in ways that take this now age-old story to whole new heights. Besides, if you wanted to try your hand at the original game it is available to play just like it was back in 1985 …
Thanks to the people at virtualapple.com for putting this up so we can play it via a virtual Apple IIe right in our browser. Try it out!
Anyway, hopefully you’ve had a chance to have either refreshed your memory of this piece of your childhood, or see what you were missing, and now I can get to the meat of my review.
Sitting down before the play I was asked if I wanted to name one of the characters (just like in the game!). As the play begins, the audience is prompted as to whether the leader of the party would be a banker, a carpenter, a lamplighter or a farmer (just like in the game!). Later on, if you sit in the first three rows you will get a chance to hunt for food (just like in the game!). All leading up to an audience clap -off to be the virtual arrow keys from days of yore.
In other words a whole lot of interactive fun.
Like the original game, many things are going on in the musical of Oregon Trails: The Quest For the West! Like in the game, the cast works hard to make the show educational as well as entertaining. And like the game, the format of the show strives to be as interactive as possible yet not to overwelm the the audience with too many choices. Finally, like the game, the musical endeavors to make the trip of the covered wagons along the Oregon Trail a human one with colorful characters (now with personality and enjoyable musical numbers instead of 8-bit color versus the original black and white).
There are many things going on in this new musical. It has a great set of production numbers (both ensemble as well as solos and duets), and I’d just love it if No.11 Productions came out with a cast album for this amazing soundtrack. It has interesting characters: a farmer/lamplighter/carpenter/banker named Jebediah (John Bambery) who is our expeditions leader, but with a tragic past that sometimes fuels his Darkness. His sister Hope (Haley Greenstein) is always confident that God will provide and therefore cheers on the crew. The character hilariously named for a finger-roll down the computer keyboard: Asdfjkl; (Brian Walters) is what you would expect – a bit afraid yet willing to pitch in or follow along, to get shot in the leg, whatever is needed to fill in whatever gaps might appear in the expedition. [Character 2] (Julie Congress)who is a draw from a hat became “Funnel Cake”. She is a rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl who thought she wanted to go to New York, but joined her crew to go down the Oregon Trail because it had more Danger. Which she craves continuously. [Character 1] (Roger Mulligan) who our audience dubbed “Dingo” is a farmer who lives in the moment and works hard, becomes a love interest and is always a strong, gentle soul looking forward to “manifest his destiny”.
Speaking of Manifest Destiny, this is a central pillar of the plot arcs of Oregon Trails: The Quest For the West! In the 1840s the phrase meant the idea that “Americans” would extend from one coast to the other in a societal sense. This was facilitated by government programs such as the Donation Land Act of 1850 (which gave government endorsement to the Organic Laws of Oregon which said the same thing on the state level in 1843) which gave settlers 320 acres per married couple or 160 acres per unmarried settler to anyone who made their way out there and then showed improvement to that land they had claimed. What is cleverly done in the play is to change the tense so that each character sings of their own personal quests so they “manifest my destiny” and use the experience of riding the trail as their own Hero’s journey transform themselves, instead of just the aspirations to succeed economically.
The story is simple and so are the rules, the choices make a difference but so does dumb luck (or as Hope would say, God’s Will). So, though experience with the game may help you enjoy the many inside jokes regarding the original game mechanics, this play succeeds in ways the game couldn’t – specifically by connecting us back to the spirit of adventure and progress that the original trail gave those pioneers crossing the country despite hardships and dangers. Ultimately Oregon Trails: The Quest For the West! teaches the lesson that if we persevere the experiences of our journey will help mold us into the people we want to be.
The Oregon Trail: Quest for the West!
Presented by No. 11 Productions New York, NY The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street) $13 Wed 2/23 @ 7:30pm, Sat 2/26 @ 7pm, Mon 2/28 @ 6pm, Thu 3/3 @ 10:30pm, & Sun 3/6 @ 1pm
FRIGID New York Festival 2011 will run February 23-March 6 at The Kraine Theater & The Red Room (85 East 4th Street between 2nd Ave and Bowery) and UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1sr Ave and Ave A). Tickets ($10-$16) may be purchased online at www.FRIGIDnewyork.info or by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444. All shows will run 60 minutes long or less.