Adventure is a-brewin’ this weekend in The Trail to Oregon, a fully student produced improvisation based musical sponsored through the Saginaw Valley State University department of theatre. The musical is based on the hit 1970s computer game “The Oregon Trail” and was written and originally produced by Starkid Productions, the Chicago based theatre group responsible for other popular parodies like A Very Potter Musical.
The story follows one family’s journey down the trail to a new life in Oregon. One fun aspect of this production is that the audience is responsible for naming these five characters, names that are used throughout the rest of the show (the names given to each character the night I was there are a little too adult to print in this review, so that gives you an idea of what they’re going for). There are many funny references to the computer game throughout the evening as well as improvised lines from several of the cast members, so you truly get a new and unique performance every night. When entering the theatre, the audience also votes for which member of the family will die at the end (from a disease that those of us who played the game know all too well). It is a fun and energetic evening.
That energy was the driving force behind this particular production. While some of the songs are a bit forgettable, the entire cast was able to keep the excitement going as we never really knew what crazy event was going to happen next. Co-directors Kaleigh Richards and Zachery Wood assembled a dedicated cast who really jumped into the craziness and genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves. Vocally, standouts included P.J. Burke (Grandpa) and Melanie Frasca (Mother, and also the music director), who both had strong voices and managed to make some of their more ridiculous songs have a deeper meaning to their characters. There was strong comedic timing throughout the cast with Abby Burgess (Son) and Jessica Hurley (Daughter) having some of the more vulgar material to deliver, but never losing their timing or energy when trying to sell it to the audience.
I was also struck by the sentimental moments, unexpected in a show like this, when the family struggled on the trail. Wood (who in addition to co-directing also played Father) and Frasca found really nice moments between their characters and displayed genuine chemistry. A special shout out also to Brady Katshor (Male Chorus) and Natasha Nash (Female Chorus, and also the show’s choreographer) who played so many roles I almost lost count. They managed on making physical and vocal choices throughout the show to differentiate their many characters, sometimes within seconds of their last character leaving the stage. The pacing of the scenes slowed down as the show progressed and some of the energy of the cast waned a bit, but you could still tell everyone was excited to deliver a unique and fun show.
Costume design by Jennifer Lothian was simple, but successful. Most actors played several roles in the show, so all were able to quickly add on small pieces to their costumes to transition to each new role. Lighting design by Brittany Lacross was also rather straightforward, but she found lots of creative ways to transition to all the new locations our characters find themselves in. Sound design by Amber Tanner was a bit quiet throughout and the balance of the music to the actors’ voices sometimes left things a little muddled; however, there were lots of sound effects throughout that were very well handled. Scenic design by Mia Berlanga was understated, but worked effectively in the small space of the black box theatre. Check out the program cover art, also designed by Berlanga; what a talent!
Overall, The Trail to Oregon is a fun adult musical for anyone who just wants to escape from the pressures of the real world for a few hours and watch a group of students deliver a unique improvisational musical, something not seen in this area.
The Trail to Oregon runs Thursday through Sunday, May 17th-20th, and can be purchased at the ticket office before the show or online.