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BWW Review: THE DONNER PARTY, A NEW AMERICAN MUSICAL, Premieres at Sacramento Theatre Company

Growing up in Northern California, it is impossible not to hear about the Donner Party, the group of 87 pioneers who tried to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846. Unfortunately, the name has become synonymous with cannibalism. After being trapped in an early winter storm at Truckee (now Donner) Lake, members of the party were forced to eat their dead in order to survive. In the horror that the imagery generates, it is difficult to remember that these were very real, living, breathing people who had dreams of providing a better life for themselves and their families. The Donner Party, A New American Musical, tells the story of 16 of those pioneers. Commissioned by Sacramento Theatre Company and written by Margaret Rose with music by Eric Rockwell, this is the musical's world premiere right here in Sacramento.

The story starts in 1846 in Missouri and follows the party to their infamous end. One of the only set pieces, a covered wagon, begins whole at the beginning of the journey and is dismantled piece by piece as the story progresses. It demonstrates the wear and tear of the journey and symbolizes that eventually there is nothing left to take from it or its passengers.

The first tragedy happens quickly, with Sarah Keyes (played by the talented Martha Omiyo Kight), succumbing to the rigors of life on the road. She comes back as a ghost to narrate and watch over the remaining members of the party. Along the way, she is joined by other casualties, all in a ghostly whoosh, who revel in spouting cautionary tales to the living, who cannot hear them.

Tamsen Donner is the only character that displays reason, logic and intelligence. Embodied masterfully by Maggie Hollenbeck, one can truly believe that there would have been a very different outcome had the party been led by the more cerebral Donner. Hollenbeck was a delight to watch, and her songs were captivating, from "The Logic of the Lupine" to "What Little Hope We Have."

Having a strong male cast in musical theatre is always a treat to see, and Michael RJ Campbell as James Reed and Jerry Lee as George Donner showed off powerhouse vocals (Wagon's Roll) as well as impeccable acting. Sam C. Jones as Charlie Stanton provided the evening's strongest performance, emoting sensitivity, wonderment, caution and enthusiasm like the young deer he is trying to catch for dinner.

There are plenty of light, funny moments to break up the mournful ones. The women sing "He's the Man I Chose" to answer Mary Ann Graves' (the sunny Abbey Williams-Campbell) question, "Aren't you happy to be married to them?" and to let her know of the men's shortcomings.

After Tamsen makes her decision to stay with George until he dies, the show's most powerful moment occurs as we see her feeding herself to fellow party member Lewis Keseberg (the delightfully wicked Steve Minow) from a spoon as George says, "So my wife nourishes the last remaining member of the Donner Party."

Director Michael Laun did a brilliant job with The Donner Party and telling their story as humans who had a dream and the fortitude to make it happen. At times it was a bit distracting when you could see the orchestra through the scrim, but the music was played wonderfully and the map displayed when opaque was interesting.

An important part of California history done in old musical theatre style and debuting in Sacramento is a win. Sacramento Theatre Company did the descendants of The Donner Party proud.

The Donner Party, A New American Musical, plays at Sacramento Theatre Company through May 14th.

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