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 ASOCâ€™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 itâ€™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: â€œCould you keep it down? Weâ€™re trying to do an interview here!â€ Ergo: the Lollipop Guild departs. They donâ€™t even bristle, they love her. Niland is a straight-shooter and sheâ€™s hilarious to boot.
â€œThe Real Lewis and Clark,â€ is ASOCâ€™s first original production in five years, Their last original production was â€œScrooged in Astoria,â€ 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 â€œShanghaied in Astoria,â€ 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, â€œI just donâ€™t quit,â€ 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, â€œI was hooked,â€ she said. She freely admits that sheâ€™s hung on to the theatre group for longer than most. â€œIâ€™ve seen it shed skins several times, really, Iâ€™m a watcher. I sit back and observe. I keep threatening to move to Ireland, you can print that, it drives my sister wild.â€ When I ask her where she gets her stubborn perseverance from she says with incredulity, â€œSeriously? Please. Iâ€™m a Leo and a Niland and Iâ€™ve got a moon in Taurus!â€
In regards to the subject of this new show; â€œFinns are always easy targets when it comes to telling jokes,â€ says Niland.
The story, the real story of â€œThe Real Lewis and Clarkâ€ 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 â€œhysterical-historicalâ€ 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 â€œTalking to the Trees,â€ 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 hadnâ€˜t done proper research on the playhouseâ€™s well-defined genre: â€œweâ€™re the Saturday Night Live of melodrama.â€
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 Astoriaâ€˜s impending bicentennial, so Niland began writing again, alone this time.
The woman who came from a self-described family of â€œIrish actors, hams and joke-tellers,â€ and wanted â€œto be Carol Burnett,â€ as a child says â€œThe Real Lewis and Clarkâ€ was inspired by the comedic stylings of Mel Brooks and Monty Python. â€œIâ€™m from that generation and it really influenced me,â€ she said.
Nilandâ€™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 Astoriaâ€™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, â€œThe Real Lewis and Clarkâ€ is a family-friendly production. However, â€œYou can still boo, hiss, and throw popcorn,â€ says Niland.
â€œThe Real Lewis and Clark Story: or How Finns Discovered Astoria,â€ 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.