Street Theatre Company's THE TRAIL TO OREGON May Be Hard to Describe, But It's More Fun Than A Bout of Dysentery

Jonah Jackson's Inventive and Innovative Direction of A Terrific Cast is Pretty Damn Amazing

By: Mar. 12, 2024
Street Theatre Company's THE TRAIL TO OREGON May Be Hard to Describe, But It's More Fun Than A Bout of Dysentery
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Clearly, there’s nothing better to ease one’s brain into a weekend state of mind after a challenging week of work, live performances and searing pain in one’s left shoulder than an off-the-wall, cleverly staged and brilliantly acted stage musical about which you know next to nothing. If you’ve correctly guessed we headed to The Barbershop Theater last Friday night for the latest offering from Street Theatre Company – the theatrical endeavor dedicated to bringing the latest, and we daresay “the best,” of contemporary musical theater to Nashville year after year – then we’ll give you your own First Night Award to bookend the one we gave STC for last season’s Ride the Cyclone, which we deemed the best musical of 2023 around these parts and about which we have yet to stop talking.

Street Theatre Company's THE TRAIL TO OREGON May Be Hard to Describe, But It's More Fun Than A Bout of Dysentery
Kristen Fields, Taryn Pray, Ben Friesen
and Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva

That is, until last Friday night’s introduction to The Trail to Oregon, the latest musical extravaganza from Street Theatre Company that rivals the aforementioned Ride the Cyclone in our heart and mind, and with which we are newly and justifiably obsessed.

What the hell is The Trail to Orgeon you may well be wondering? You may be asking yourself about that, as was I, while endangering my life while battling Nashville traffic on a very wet Friday night: is it a musicalization of Willa Cather’s O, Pioneers!? Is it someone’s misguided attempt to restage Oklahoma! without a surrey with the fringe on top, replacing it instead with a wagon with octagonal wheels? Is It Newsies (of which we could never tire) without the child labor baggage and frenetic, tap-dancing immigrant children hawking newspapers? (What’s a newspaper, anyway?) Or is it yet another attempt to captivate Baby Boomers with a musical based upon the old TV show Wagon Train?

Street Theatre Company's THE TRAIL TO OREGON May Be Hard to Describe, But It's More Fun Than A Bout of Dysentery
Elijah Wallace, Ben Friesen and Kristen Fields

The answer is none of the above, obviously – you and I are showing our age with those ridiculous suggestions – and any effort to explain The Trail to Oregon to you would contain spoilers, which people oftentimes don’t want to know, sending particularly disturbing and frankly threatening emails to critics just trying to do their jobs. But I digress...which leaves me to tell you what The Trail to Oregon is, the spoiler-free edition: it’s the most fun you can have that won’t leave you with a bloody d…! Wait, that would definitely be too graphic for the kids at home and far too shocking for their grandparents. Or is The Trail to Oregon the most engaging musical about dysentery (an affliction of the gastrointestinal tract that killed thousands of adventurous Americans who set out to find new lives in the western half of these United States) — to ever take centerstage? For sure, it is that, but that still doesn’t capture the true spirit of The Trail to Oregon, because truth be told the musical, which features music and lyrics by Jeff Blim and a book by Nick Lang, Brian Holden and Jeff Blim (arranged by Clark Baxtresser and Pierce Siebers, is so much more than what we can conjure up with our usual word salad without telling you every g.d. detail about the show.

Street Theatre Company's THE TRAIL TO OREGON May Be Hard to Describe, But It's More Fun Than A Bout of Dysentery
Kristen Fields, Eve Petty, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva,
Taryn Pray and Ben Friesen

Inspired by a video game series that was first produced in 1974 (while even I was still in high school, folks), designed to teach eighth graders (oh, that explains so much) about the history of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail, the musical The Trail to Oregon is laugh-out-loud funny, thoroughly unpredictable, entertaining and engaging – a delightfully off-kilter musical that allows audiences to immerse themselves in a journey from Missouri to Oregon with a fictional family of fuck-ups who don’t know what the hell they’ve got themselves into. Referred to in the playbill as “father,” “mother,” “daughter,” “son” and “grandpa,” the characters are named by the audience who shout suggestions to the actors assembled onstage. On opening night, Anal Beads and Chlamydia (aka pa and ma) and their kids GasPump and whatever-the-hell the daughter’s name was (my apologies to Eve Petty: you were luminous and incandescent, but damn if I can't remember the name you subjected to by the too-cute-by-half audience members, acting like they'd been left home alone by their parents for the first time) and Mr. Crabb (“Grandpa” to the fam) set off on the grand adventure, saddled with monikers that any eighth-grade boy could appreciate, whether now or in the 1970s.

Jonah Jackson’s direction for the show is inventive, even innovative, and he’s given an able assist by Brooke Ferguson’s sprightly and slightly anachronistic choreography (but who are we to quibble – were pioneers all jazz-handsy?). Randy Craft’s musical direction is at his usual amazing level and he and his five-man band bring the music to life; thanks to Miles Aubry, Andrew Bannon, Jes Cleland and Cameron Cleland.

Street Theatre Company's THE TRAIL TO OREGON May Be Hard to Describe, But It's More Fun Than A Bout of Dysentery
Eve Petty, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva and Elijah Wallace

Jim Manning provides a great backdrop for the action, capturing the design aesthetic of video screens circa 1974 perfectly. Jacob Allen’s sound is on-point, Kristen DuBois lights are terrific, Sarah Levis’ clever props are ideally suited to the story and Bonny Green outfits the cast in swell fashion.

Quite frankly, Jackson’s talented cast members have never been better or more watchable. You’ve never seen father Ben Friesen better or more versatile, nor grandpa Jennifer Whitcomb-Olivia more entrancing and watchable, Kisten Fields more questionably maternal and undeniably hilarious, Eve Petty more delightfully petulant or self-absorbed, and if there’s ever been a more annoying seven-year-old boy than the one played by Taryn Pray we have never encountered him. And, let’s face it, Elijah Wallace steals the whole damn show by being in command of all things theatrical ever in the history of the world.

Street Theatre Company's THE TRAIL TO OREGON May Be Hard to Describe, But It's More Fun Than A Bout of Dysentery
Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, Kristen Fields, Ben Friesen
and Taryn Pray

Tickets for The Trail to Oregon are going fast (in fact, the entire run may already be sold out), but definitely try to get one! Barring that, consider making a sizable endowment (ha! Sizable endowment!) to Street Theatre Company so they might invest in their own, state-of-the-art performance venue so they can fly bigger, higher and more amazingly entertaining than they already do!

The Trail to Oregon. Music and lyrics by Jeff Blim. Book by Nick Lang, Brian Holden and Jeff Blim. Arranged by Clark Baxtresser and Pierce Siebers. Originally produced by StarKid Productions. Directed by Jonah Jackson. Musical direction by Randy Craft. Choreography by Brooke Ferguson. Stage managed by Brooke West. Presented by Street Theatre Company at The Barbershop Theatre 4003 Indiana Avenue, Nashville. Through March 23. Running time: 2 hours or so, with a 15-minute intermission. For details, go to www.streettheatrecompany.org.

production photos by Michael Scott Evans



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