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Play Takes a Different Trail West : Stage: Golden State Children’s Theatre production, which will be presented tonight, is based largely on the experiences of real pioneers.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever since Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” proved that historical truth could be compatible with commercial success, the message seems to be spreading.

Knott’s Berry Farm has just spent $2.5-million building Indian Trails, a new attraction that will update the cliched images of the Old West the park has perpetuated over the years. Likewise, producers of an original musical aimed at kids, “Westward Ho!,” decided to skip the stereotypes and go straight to the horses’ mouths--or at least, to the owners’ mouths--for material that provides the foundation of the show.

Tonight in Anaheim, Whittier-based Golden State Children’s Theatre will present “Westward Ho!,” an original children’s play that blends music, journal entries and letters from mid-19th-Century American settlers in a format designed to appeal to viewers in kindergarten through sixth grade. It starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Pearson Park Amphitheatre as part of Anaheim’s 1992 Just for Kids program.

“Westward Ho!,” co-written by Golden State managing director Raun Yankovich, Adriane Coros and Jeff R.W. Stevens, will be staged by five adult actors who will trace the progress of the fictional Hopkins family as it makes its way along the Oregon Trail, the East-to-West route followed by settlers in the 1830s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

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According to Yankovich, the Hopkinses’ experiences, and those of their traveling companions and characters they meet along the way, are based largely on those of real pioneers.

“We basically went through anthologies of journals, diaries and letters from about 30 different people who traveled the Oregon Trail between 1848 and 1853 and wrote down things that we thought were eloquent and expressive of that period,” Yankovich said.

After devising a story line and characters, the entries were woven into the show as dialogue and narration. Period music, which will be played live on guitar, banjo, washboard and other instruments by David Cahuequi, was added to enhance the entertainment and storytelling value.

“Some of the tunes are familiar, like ‘Oh, Susannah,’ which was sort of the theme song of the ‘49ers,” said Yankovich. “Others are more obscure. ‘Emigrant From Pike,’ for example, probably hasn’t been performed much in the last 100 years, but we chose it because we wanted a song that told of the miners’ experience of going to the California gold fields and returning home disillusioned and broke.”

Yankovich, Coros and Stevens have tried to give the story multiple dimensions by telling it through eight diverse characters, ranging from wagon master/narrator Thaddeus McNeil (Kevin Michaels) to young Mercy Hopkins (Ann Noriel). Kelvin Tsao plays multiple roles including Mr. Burnside, a wealthy merchant who sets out from Missouri laden with goods, is forced to discard them along the rugged trail, and arrives in Oregon penniless. Tsao also plays Sam Poole, a down-on-his-luck miner who tries to persuade the Hopkinses to turn back. Chad McCord and Karen Razler complete the cast as Abraham and Sara Hopkins.

To give the American Indian view, the writers selected a speech that was presented by a Suquamish chief to officials of the U.S. government.

“It’s a beautiful piece,” Yankovich said, “in which the chief talks about how the Native Americans don’t understand how you can buy or sell land, but if it has to happen, he wants them to know that they must teach their children that land is sacred.”

To provide a starting point for youngsters unfamiliar with the Oregon Trail, the cast will precede tonight’s performance with a half-hour historical overview and a chance for selected members of the audience to try their hands at playing the washboard and spoons.

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“Westward Ho!” is the first in the Golden State Children’s Theatre’s Music Americana series of simple, historically based programs. The company, which normally tours elementary schools in Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside Counties, also stages more elaborate shows for children at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and other venues, leads theater workshops and publishes a quarterly theater newsletter for children in hopes of getting them “excited about theater, and hopefully inspiring them to come back for more,” Yankovich said.

On Aug. 20, the company will conclude Anaheim’s Just for Kids series with a performance of “A New World,” an original musical based on the travels of Christopher Columbus.

Just for Kids consists of 11 low-cost family programs presented Thursday nights at the Pearson Park Amphitheatre (see box for schedule). It was one of three summer programs in the city--the others were the “Music Under the Stars” community band concerts on Fridays and the “Starlight Specials” music, comedy and dance series on Saturdays--that were eliminated because of municipal budget cuts and survived only because of a $246,856 two-year grant from the Leo Freedman Foundation, according to Sue Richmond, a recreation services specialist in the Anaheim Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department.

Without the grant, which was supplemented by money from Target Stores, “we would have had to totally shut down and walk away,” Richmond said.

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* The Golden State Children Theatre presents “Westward Ho!” tonight at 7:30 in the Pearson Park Amphitheatre, on Lemon Street between Lincoln Avenue and Sycamore Street in Anaheim. Tickets: $1 to $2. (714) 254-5274. Concessions and picnic facilities available.


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