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Quest for the West: Adventures on the Oregon Trail!
The Hills Are Alive!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Quest for the West: Adventures on the Oregon Trail!

Quest for the West
Steven Conroy, Scott Raymond Johnson, Julie Congress, John Bambery, and Haley Greenstein.
Photo by Jen Neads

In the burgeoning pantheon of computer game–inspired musicals, Quest for the West: Adventures on the Oregon Trail! stands alone in terms of ingenuity. In this show, playing at Theatre 80 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, you'll help an enterprising, westward-focused quintet overcome such terrors as a bison stampede, floating down the Columbia River, jumping over prickly pear cacti, and, of course, hunting a stage full of roaming wild animals (by your throwing rubber-ball "bullets" at them, naturally). You don't need to be familiar with the original game, which has existed in various forms for more than 40 years, to appreciate what this adventurous troupe has accomplished, though anything less than encyclopedic knowledge will mean you'll miss at least a few of the jokes.

As a show, however, it's at best a fine computer game. Librettists Julie Congress, Ryan Emmons (who also directed), Zachary Fithian, and Jen Neads, and songwriters Rebecca Greenstein and Danny Tieger have created a considerably more compelling techno-nostalgia trip than they have a satirical chronicle of 19th-century Manifest Destiny. I can't say I cared at all whether Jebediah (John Bambery), his sister Hope (Greenstein), their secretive companion Asdfjkl; (Steven Conroy), and two others (Congress and Scott Raymond Johnson, playing characters whose names are determined by audience participation) ever reached their destination or not. There are nominal plot points concerning one character's all-consuming faith in God and the guilt Asdfjkl; feels about harm he unknowingly caused Jeb and Hope, but the prevailing concern always seems only to set up the next action sequence.

The songs, though energetically performed (the cute, homespun choreography is by Kyle Mullins), aren't memorable for much beyond their 8-bit accompaniment. But the cast is incredibly likable, and everyone nicely captures the wide-eyed optimism of the era with a thin coating of melodrama that makes the trek a pleasure even if it isn't profound. (Maxwell Schneller is a particular a hoot as the narrator, who plays a number of smaller, sillier roles and tracks the team's progress on a giant scoreboard near the side of the stage.) The physical production likewise captures just the right tone, with Ryan Hauenstein's sets, Congress's costumes, and Neads's props delightfully, but never overly, cartoonish in their dual evocation of both the time period and the original game about it.

The creators' apparent uncertainty about whether they want to tell a serious or a silly story hurts their final product somewhat; a more cohesive, consistent approach, in either direction, would better anchor the scenes and songs, and that could only help. But if nothing else, Quest for the West is animated good time — how can you hate a musical that lets you shoot a buffalo without needing to obtain a license first?

Quest for the West: Adventures on the Oregon Trail!
Through August 25
Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place (1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue)
Tickets and current schedule" FringeNYC.org


The Hills Are Alive!

Think of it as Nine Little Austrians. The Hills Are Alive!, written by Frankie and Eric Thomas Johnson (book and lyrics, and music and direction respectively) and playing at Theatre 80, is based on a tantalizing question: What happened to that famous family of singers when they set off to escape the Nazis by crossing the mountains into Switzerland without a plan or supplies? In the proper hands, this should make for an uproarious 60-minute musical spoof with so many built-in possibilities, the authors would merely need to decide what to leave out. Unfortunately, the Johnsons have apparently exercised no restraint, turning out a two-hour evening — with an intermission, no less! — that runs their surefire premise into the ground, dances the Ländler on it, then drop-kicks it off an Alp.

Almost as soon as Captain van Klapp (Trenton Weaver) and Fräulein Mathilde (Ashley Ball) lead their seven children into the mountains, family members start disappearing: one is kidnapped by a bear, one falls out of a tree, one eats a bushel of poison berries, and so on. Some of the underlying ideas are moderately clever, if not always exactly original (the oldest boy has the hots for his new step-mother, for example), but the score limits itself to recreating and revamping moments from the film, with the absurdly intricate "Crochets and Quavers" filling in for "Do Re Mi," two separate riffs on "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," and "Mathilde Is a Problem" and "Something Bad" drawing from the obvious sources. But despite being attractively composed, with a slight ear toward operetta (much like their inspiration), the songs aren't quick larks, and thus inhibit comedy rather than encourage it.

Ball does a sparkling Julie Andrews impression that anchors the company, though the brightest standout is Daniele Hager, a gifted young opera singer, playing the surprisingly crucial role of the middle-child Magda who's constantly forgotten by everyone. The cast is not the problem, are most of the individual songs — the title tune, in fact, is astonishingly textured, complex, and mature — or the staging and physical production (Jennifer Ackland did the spot-on costumes), which could not be better under the circumstances. But the central conceit's wire-thin spine can't support everything the Johnsons have piled onto it for the length of time it's required to bear the burden. The Hills Are Alive! would feel a lot more alive itself if, like the van Klapps, it better respected its own limitations.

The Hills Are Alive!
Through August 24
Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place (1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue)
Tickets and current schedule" FringeNYC.org