djonn: Self-portrait (She Who Watches)
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A fascinating and largely unexpected evening Saturday night at the theater; thanks to [ profile] davidlevine having unexpectedly had two surplus tickets, my mother and I had the chance to see the second-night performance of The Ghosts of Celilo.  This is a brand new stage musical (though there's ten years of work on the part of its creators behind it) based on local history, specifically events leading up to the inundation of what was previously Celilo Falls, a key Indian salmon fishing site in the western part of the Columbia River Gorge.

Three things that The Ghosts of Celilo isn't:

It isn't a story, at least not primarily, about the politics of Indian salmon fishing or the politics involved in the decision to open The Dalles Dam's floodgates and submerge the falls.  It isn't a story about the stereotypical Noble Indian vs. the stereotypical Evil White Man (although toward the end, we get a slightly over-the-top melodrama villainess).  And it isn't a story drawn from the early mythological traditions of the Columbia Gorge peoples (its roots are considerably more contemporary).

Three things that The Ghosts of Celilo is:

The score and lyrics, blending musical-theater convention and Native American elements, are accessible, evocative, and well-balanced.  The songs are not for the most part especially ambitious or complex, but they serve the story effectively.  The script chooses a reasonably straightforward story and, for the most part, keeps its focus on that story throughout.  And the scenic and lighting design is memorable and well-conceived, though it relies very heavily on a revolving stage; one hopes the hydraulics will hold out for the duration of the three-week run. 

Now, how well is the material executed?

For the most part, very well indeed.  The performers -- and all the numerous Native roles are played by Native-blooded actors -- make up a crisply consistent, effective troupe.  Two of the actors stand out: Noah Hunt, playing the rebellious Celilo teen (Chokey Jim) who's essentially the show's lead, and Colton Lasater, in a technically challenging role as his closest friend Train, a younger, mute half-breed boy whose carved wooden whistle is a central plot device.  And the eleven youngsters who play students at the Good Faith Indian Boarding School unite to form a remarkably clear-voiced vocal ensemble.  In general, the nine-member corps of musicians is also nuanced, well-balanced, and complements the vocals effectively, though there are a few spots where the volume could be scaled back slightly to avoid overwhelming some of the more intricately counterpointed lyrics.  I didn't get a good look at the orchestra pit, and I'm not wholly sure whether the musicians are performing live or on a recorded soundtrack.  There's evidently still some fine-tuning going on as well; our second-night performance broke for intermission a full scene before the Act I/Act II break as labeled in the playbill.  (Structurally speaking, the playbill's breakpoint makes more sense in strict story context, but the earlier breakpoint arguably works better for the show as it's performed.)

I've saved a discussion of the storyline itself for last, because this is where the discussion becomes particularly complicated.  Both the playbill and advance newspaper coverage describe the musical as "based on true events that happened near Celilo in the 1950s"; central character Chokey Jim is specifically stated to be based on a Celilo named Nathan Jim, and it may (or may not) be significant that two non-Indian characters bear the last name of Lyle, also attached to a small Washington community just a few miles east of The Dalles Dam.

What's less clear is exactly how closely the musical's "Good Faith Indian Boarding School" -- where most of the action occurs -- should be presumed to resemble the Warm Springs Reservation Boarding School where the real-world Nathan Jim was sent at the age of eight.  The events of the musical are specifically dated to 1956-57, covering the year immediately prior to the inundation of Celilo Falls.  However, while the stringent religious and assimilation-centered policies of many Indian boarding schools are historically well documented, the period in which these practices occurred is generally dated from roughly the 1870s to the 1920s or 1930s -- ending at least a full generation prior to the musical's stated time period.  As a result, there's room for serious students of history to argue that the show misleads audiences by juxtaposing two admittedly significant issues -- the boarding schools' Christianized cultural suppression, and the loss of the fishing platforms and village at Celilo Falls -- that are at best only tangentially connected.

Fortunately, however, the musical's fundamental appeal doesn't lie in matters of historicity.  The show ultimately belongs to Chokey Jim and Train, both of whose stories are ultimately personal tales of lost families.  Both Chokey's and Train's fathers are long gone when their stories begin (as is the father of schoolteacher Irene Lyle), and as the show progresses all three must confront their respective parents' heritage.  A framing story involving a quartet of ghosts marooned beneath the Columbia's risen waters weaves behind and through the main plot, providing context and momentum but rarely becoming intrusive.

It should be noted that this show skates past a couple of long-established musical theater conventions: the climax is, if not wholly tragic in literary terms, decidedly dark, and while the script isn't entirely without romantic undercurrents, they're extremely muted.  At the same time, much of the music is lively and even amusing (if sometimes ironically so), particularly the children's anthem "From Now On", which reappears more than once as the show progresses.

The bottom line?  Despite a few rough edges -- many of which aren't surprising in the first few performances of a show's first full-scale run -- and the potential for quibbling about the script's use of dramatic license, this was a worthwhile, well-mounted, and altogether engaging production of a show that deserves to succeed.  I'm glad we had the chance to attend, and I hope the rest of the run is as well-attended as last night's performance.

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