Overland | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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OVERLAND, New Tuners Theatre, at the Theatre Building. Not itself pioneering, this vibrant musical pays rich tribute to yesterday's pioneers. In a masterful no-frills staging by Warner Crocker for New Tuners' "Stage One" series, Overland sweepingly chronicles the epic if familiar trek of American homesteaders. Heading for Oregon in 1844, this wagon train encounters both predictable and surprising obstacles: disease, insanity, disunity, wolves, misogyny, homesickness, lost horses, and swollen rivers. Ken Stone's generous book and wise lyrics deliver believable crises and colorful characters--perhaps even too much of both. Jan Powell's songs, well directed by Judy Myers, range from choruses like the imposing title number and the moving "Back Home" to a Stephen Foster-style finale. Overall the score is sophisticated, even Sondheim-like--somewhat surprising considering the country-western subject.

If Overland is too long, better an embarrassment of riches at this stage than a deficit. And happily the 18 cast members exploit the show's virtues and hide its flaws. Phil Gigante brings authority and poignance to the gruff wagon master, a mountain man with a very articulate loathing for the human race (his "Take Back the People" sounds like environmentalism's first broadside). Lenny Gallo is touching as a boy who grows up too fast. And Danielle Rhea and Richard Similio are convincing as a couple whose marriage is tested with every jolt of their Conestoga.

--Lawrence Bommer

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