Astor St. Opry has a new show and the company’s “mother-of-all” is behind it

July Niland
Photo: Dinah Urell

THIS MONTH the Astor Street Opera Company (ASOC) is set to debut a new musical melodrama, and as I sit down to talk to JUDITH NILAND, the ASOC’s manager-director, a little lion and a little pint-sized tin-man are milling about. Before I know it, the whole cast of the Wizard of Oz is there and it’s getting very loud. Niland and I are sitting in the theatre at tables so narrow their only use could be for one arm, and a beer and a hand-full of popcorn. When all of a sudden she whips around and with her sprightly demeanor snaps: “Could you keep it down? We’re trying to do an interview here!” Ergo: the Lollipop Guild departs. They don’t even bristle, they love her. Niland is a straight-shooter and she’s hilarious to boot.

“The Real Lewis and Clark,” is ASOC’s first original production in five years, Their last original production was “Scrooged in Astoria,” which has proven to have a wonderful track-record of success for the playhouse that continues to produce it every year. It should also go without saying that “Shanghaied in Astoria,” is a local theatrical institution and watching it can only be described as a rite-of-passage.

Niland has been at ASOC for 26 years, “I just don’t quit,” she says. After living as an artist in Santa Cruz, Niland and her first husband settled in Astoria and her then husband became a co-founder of the theatre. Niland started out as a costume designer, but when she saw her first costumes being worn on stage, “I was hooked,” she said. She freely admits that she’s hung on to the theatre group for longer than most. “I’ve seen it shed skins several times, really, I’m a watcher. I sit back and observe. I keep threatening to move to Ireland, you can print that, it drives my sister wild.” When I ask her where she gets her stubborn perseverance from she says with incredulity, “Seriously? Please. I’m a Leo and a Niland and I’ve got a moon in Taurus!”

In regards to the subject of this new show; “Finns are always easy targets when it comes to telling jokes,” says Niland.

The story, the real story of “The Real Lewis and Clark” was unearthed from a pioneer journal that was discovered in an attic in Uniontown, in 2001. It explains how the Finns – in all actuality – were the first to arrive in Astoria.

Unlike Lewis and Clark, the Finns still had some beer left by the time they reached the Pacific.

The “hysterical-historical” script was essentially born out of the brain of the deceased and greatly missed ASOC player, Rodger Martin. Martin died in a tragic fire that destroyed the better half of an Astoria city block in 2008. In 2005, however, when Martin was still a major player at ASOC, the theater was contacted to produce something for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. Martin and Niland began discussing ideas and Martin even wrote a song “Talking to the Trees,” for it, but the script was too comedic and the association that commissioned the script wanted a historically-accurate drama. Niland said no way, obviously these people hadn‘t done proper research on the playhouse’s well-defined genre: “we’re the Saturday Night Live of melodrama.”

The script was put on the backburner until more recent times when ASOC decided they needed a third major anchor for their yearly show schedule. It was also fitting to do something to celebrate Astoria‘s impending bicentennial, so Niland began writing again, alone this time.

The woman who came from a self-described family of “Irish actors, hams and joke-tellers,” and wanted “to be Carol Burnett,” as a child says “The Real Lewis and Clark” was inspired by the comedic stylings of Mel Brooks and Monty Python. “I’m from that generation and it really influenced me,” she said.

Niland’s sister and brother-in-law, Stanley Azen, Ph.D. and Joyce C. Niland, Ph.D., wrote the original music for the production along with Astoria’s own Philip Morrill. The show also features original choreography by another local Astorian, Carly Lewis Allen. ChrisLynn Taylor provides the musical direction.

Just so you know, “The Real Lewis and Clark” is a family-friendly production. However, “You can still boo, hiss, and throw popcorn,” says Niland.

“The Real Lewis and Clark Story: or How Finns Discovered Astoria,” opens on Thursday, April 14th and runs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until April 30 at the ASOC playhouse on Bond Street.Tickets for the new show range in price from $15 to $8 with available discounts for children, seniors and groups.

Humor-rich, song, dance, and sizable cast enliven the ASOC stage. Reservations are recommended by calling 503-325-6104 or tickets can be purchased at the door one hour before show time.