Sacramento Theatre Company’s ambitious new musical “The Donner Party” lurches about looking for an appropriate tone and mood it never quite finds amid much beautiful music in its score. The search and result are not completely surprising considering the complexity of the subject. The world premiere with music by Eric Rockwell and book and lyrics by Margaret Rose dramatizes one of the most infamous incidents in American history. It’s a story with significant regional roots.
The wagon train of settlers left Independence, Mo., in May 1846, headed for Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. A series of questionable decisions from leaders James Reed and George Donner, along with bad luck, doomed the party which became snowbound near the Sierra summit. Their supplies eventually expired, and of the 87 people who began the journey, only 48 survived to reach California, many by eating the bodies of companions who had died.
How to musically translate and dramatize the horrors of that experience was the daunting challenge the creators faced. Ultimately what happened receives superficial acknowledgment; only one supporting character’s madness goes beneath the surface of it.
There are several moving moments in Rockwell’s lovely score, and those reflective songs are beautifully sung across the cast. Initially we’re plunged into a familiar milieu of western myth, featuring can-do pioneer men, love-struck tin-horns and resolute pioneer women. In the first act we are shown a happy, grinning spectacle with singing, square-dancing and men-folk trouble a continent away from where the journey grinds to a freezing, desperate halt. It’s a little too plucky and cutesy for what will come, as if the creators want us to know the arduous journey wasn’t all dark and futile.
Rose co-directs with Michael Laun, and they effectively showcase the musical’s intimate moments. The larger ensemble pieces seem to come from altogether different shows and feel more cosmetic than substantial.
Too often the mood and subject matter of songs don’t emotionally track with what the narrative tells us is happening. At one point following a scene featuring starving children, a character suggests everyone “Pull Yourself Up by the Bootstraps” as if surviving the blizzard were a matter of willpower. That same character will later eat the ox-hide straps of his snowshoes in a futile effort to survive. Similarly a scene of starving children “celebrating” a makeshift Christmas confounds more than it comforts.
The creators don’t settle on a single main character, and the choice makes sense, though two characters and performances stand out.
Vivienne Cleary as Margaret Reed and Maggie Hollinbeck as Tamsen Donner are particularly effective and memorable as matriarchs of the two lead households. Each brings a sense of integrity and determination to their women of very different circumstance. The Reeds started out with three wagons driven by hired hands including a legendarily lush wagon for the family. By the end of the trip, Margaret would be walking alone with her children, somehow having survived the ordeal.
Tamsen Donner was a widowed school teacher when she met and married George Donner. Here she becomes the voice of reason and caution ultimately overruled by the men’s overreaching optimism. Several times Tamsen refused the opportunity to save herself once the party became trapped in the snow instead staying by the side of her sick husband. They both died in the mountains, never reaching Sutter’s Fort though their children made it. Cleary and Hollinbeck each give a sense of their characters’ conflicted inner lives, which momentarily galvanize the production.
Michael RJ Campbell as James Reed and Jerry Lee as George Donner complete the quartet of main characters. Though the men’s presence doesn’t match that of their spouses, both sing wonderfully. Steve Minow, Cat Yates and Martha Omiyo Kight are part of a fine ensemble that includes several children from STC’s Young Professional’s Conservatory. Samuel Clein conducts the live five-person orchestra who perform behind a scrim onstage.
STC deserves recognition for taking on a such a difficult worthy project. By all accounts, the journey of the Donner Party was a disaster resulting in tragedy. The final tableaux, a technicolor picnic with strawberries and flowers, may make a soothing final image, but it doesn’t resonate with the story we know or the one we’ve been told.
‘The Donner Party’
What: The world premiere of a musical written by Eric Rockwell and Margaret Rose. Directed by Rose and Michael Laun
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Main Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: Continues through Sunday, May 14 at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes