Review: ‘Another Way West’: Another Way South for the NU Theater Department
Trigger Warning: Musical theater hasn’t seen this many satchels since “Newsies.” Unfortunately, poor choices in baggage fashion are but one of many shortcomings in “Another Way West.” And while the absurdly high concentration of messenger bags is a primary reason for tearing apart this entirely student-run musical, we hope that you take all of our words deeply to heart.
Never before have we critiqued a body of student work such as this, so our opinions have little to no bearing, but that doesn’t mean this musical wasn’t a complete and utter catastrophe. With the exception of a fantastic performance from the ensemble, who took the form of various states of matter (water, trees, ACE Hardware employees), the 85th Annual Waa-Mu show left me wishing I never won those free tickets courtesy of Today Tix. Not surprisingly, the musical had its last performance this Sunday after an embarrassingly short two-week run at Cahn Auditorium.
Written by an army of theater majors who got the lead roles in their high school’s production of “Into the Woods,” this incarnation of the Northwestern musical tradition explores ideas about familial identity and the value of determination, with performances by a Mumford & Sons cover band interspersed throughout.
After receiving a comically large research grant, go-getter graduate student Kate Simmons takes us on a journey to learn about the lives of her Irish immigrant ancestors, a journey that could have been easily circumvented via ancestry.com. With the help of Irish patois, wrinkled vests and dust make-up, the audience is transported to a time in America when white people were discriminated against (but not to worry, for in the world of “Another Way,” xenophobia is no match for upbeat musical numbers). On the way we learn that Kate’s story and that of her ancestors are more similar than anyone could have thought, with the exception of a dramatic decline in dysentery since the 1850s.
Yet it would seem that in the split-second generational shifts, quality medical care isn’t the only thing that’s lost. For a musical that illustrates the discrimination of Irish immigrants, I find it astounding how few Irish actors were cast in the production. In fact, I knew a number of the cast members, and I can attest that many of them are Jewish. The authenticity of the show is once again challenged in the song “Miles To Go,” an emphatic tune whose chorus seems to forget that Irish immigrants would have used the metric system, both in song and in measurement.
Now this review wouldn’t be a true theater review if I didn’t judge the characters’ personal choices. After Kate’s sister dies in an off-screen car crash, her orphaned children find Kate, who allows them to join her on the journey. While canceling her expedition across the Oregon Trail wouldn’t be great material for a musical, it would have been the responsible choice as the legal guardian of her deceased sister’s children. And on the topic of Kate’s sister, the writers of the show seem to leave her death largely unexplained. Was it a car that killed Kate’s sister, or a relentless drinking problem? The people need to know.
This is the year in theater in which “Hamilton” changed the game. The bar for musicals has been raised, and “Another Way West” is the overweight kid in your 5th grade gym class who can’t hold on because of his sausage-like digits. Even worse, the show is the kid who wishes he were more like that cool kid Lin-Manuel. I find it suspicious that the show used phrases like “Look around” and “Raise a glass”—two combinations of words featured in Hamilton. And did anyone notice the show takes place in America’s past? Starting to sound a lot like Hamilton. But if you ask me, these college students aren’t anywhere CLOSE to creating the next Tony-nominated musical sensation, not by a long shot. All those satchels are probably carrying the emotional baggage the Waa-Mu team has from knowing they’ll never be as commercially or theatrically successful as Hamilton. Much like my 85-year-old grandfather, the 85-year-old Waa-Mu tradition is cute, charmingly offensive, and won’t fucking die.
Editor’s Note: Congratulations to all who performed in and worked on “Another Way West,” you all killed it.