A show of firsts: Riverwalk presents an experimental, musical road-trip comedy in its Black Box


When a family of five heads down the Oregon Trail in what director Ayden Soupal calls “pioneer times,” hilarity, death and family values are all part of the journey.

If you’ve never played the beloved video game that inspired the musical, “The Oregon Trail,” fear not. Soupal said, “I’ve never played it. But it’s not an adaptation of the game, it’s a road-trip comedy.” Sure, there are references and easter eggs for gamers, but the script is designed to work for all audiences.

Soupal chose the script and is excited to be directing his first musical after directing his first production last year, Riverwalk’s “Misery.” His theater training began about 10 years ago with All-of-Us Express Children’s Theatre in East Lansing. He credits the program with giving him a well-rounded understanding of different theater roles, which is key for a director.

“I’ve always wanted to direct a musical,” he said. “Being able to convey the plot and push the story along through music is a feat. Sure, there are jokes about pooping your pants and horny oxen, but the show is about loving your family, working together and knowing that everything is going to be okay.”

Soupal’s entire family is involved in this production, with his parents, Derek and Kat, responsible for set design and his sister, Lane, responsible for choreography. He’s especially proud of his dad, who won a Barney Award from Riverwalk this summer for his behind-the-scenes work in “Misery.”

“It was his first time ever doing a set, and there was a special effect required with a trap door. He won the award for that, and I’ve got to give that to him. These shows are a family affair,” Soupal said.

At 22 years old, Soupal isn’t sure if he’s the youngest director at Riverwalk, but he can’t think of anyone close to him in age who’s currently directing.

“This is very much my sense of humor, not that I’m always this juvenile,” he said of the musical. “But it’s the perfect small-scale yet very impactful show.”

But don’t expect to just sit back and relax. The show requires some audience participation at the beginning and the end, and, as a result, it will be slightly different each time it’s performed. The audience will help the actors choose their names during the opening number, “Gone to Oregon.”

“The audience has to shout the names they want the characters to have. It hypes up the audience at the beginning of the show, and then the actors have to maintain that throughout the night,” Soupal said.

Actor Taren Going plays the Mother character in the show.

“She’s the stern one. She loves her family a lot, but she’s very much the ‘straight man,’” Going said.

Going has performed in plenty of musicals and comedic productions, but “this show is nothing like anything I’ve ever done before,” they said. “It’s extreme goofiness.”

“Actually, I’m not ever the straight man,” they added. “I’m usually the goofy one, and everyone else has to act normal around me.”

Going especially appreciates the set design, saying, “Our scenic background was painted to look a lot like the stills in the background of the video game.” Laughing, they added, “I definitely played the game. Sometimes I didn’t make it to the end, and we starved or died of dysentery.”

When asked what’s so enduring about the video game, Going replied, “I think we all like having the ability to test things. You reset and choose again. If you die, you just go back to the beginning, and you think, ‘I will not make that mistake again.’”

Going is excited to see what happens when the show opens.

“It’s going to be interesting to try and maintain my character. The show is different every night because of what the audience brings to it,” they said.

Their advice to the audience is, “Come prepared for a good time — and lots of silliness.” 

This is the first time Riverwalk will stage a musical in its Black Box space. Soupal said, “Usually, the point of the Black Box theater is to do a smaller, intimate or more experimental show.”

He said the show has faced the typical trials and tribulations of theater but that “the cast and crew have been phenomenal. I’m very excited for people to see it. Once the cast hears the audience’s laughter, they won’t want it to stop.”



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