Stage: 'Oil City Symphony,' The Eternally Stagestruck

by Mel Gussow
NEW YORK TIMES, Nov. 6, 1987

For "Oil City Symphony," Circle in the Square (Downtown) has been transformed into a high school gymnasium, complete with basketball hoops and hardwood floor. Bathed in the soft glow of nostalgia, this could be the setting for the senior prom scene in the movie, "Peggy Sue Got Married". As the show begins, four musically inclined graduates of the 1960's have reunited to give a recital in honor of a favorite teacher.

No matter when one went to high school, "Oil City Symphony" should stir affectionate memories. We have all known such stagestruck performers, who, after graduation, set out to conquer show business -- and never left their hometown. Now they lead church choirs and teach others what they loved to learn.

Two of the troup, the pert Debra Monk and Mark Hardwick (a beanpole on a piano stool) were members of the team of author-performers who created "Pump Boys and Dinettes". In common with that down-home jamboree, "Oil City Symphony" scores both as paean and parody -- from the moment that Ms. Monk, dressed in her bright Peggy Sue gown, entreats us to "Count Your Blessings." There is also more than a touch of moon madness in the air, as Mary Murfitt purses her lips and earnestly rips through "Czardas" on her magic violin.

About half the tunes are oldies, including "easy listening" anthologies that segue from Sousa to Loesser. The other songs have been written in artful imitation by the company. These include "Ohio Afternoon," a rhapsodic pastiche of all moonglow lazy-river ballads -- as sweetly sung by Ms. Monk -- and "Beaver Ball at the Bug Club," a giddy trip to anthropomorphism.

Beneath the partnership there is hidden competition. All four adore the spotlight. Each demonstrates his favorite instrument and gives a brief history of it (Ms. Murfitt, the scholar, traces the fiddle back to the "fidula"). Mike Craver, who looks and acts like a third Smothers, stands at his synthesizer and announces, with pride, that it can imitate all the other instruments.

Mr. Craver is amusing, but he is out-nerded by Mr. Hardwick, who is possessed by the piano and by keyboard crazes that range from Liszt to Jerry Lee Lewis (he also plays an adept accordion). Ever eager to top him, his colleagues gather at the piano and, together, in eight-hand harmony, plink through a close-quartered "Coaxing the Ivories."

Each of the actors has a musical versatility (none, of course, would have remained in Oil City). Ms. Murfitt, switching in mid-tune from violin to flute to saxophone, could have made a living with Phil Spitalny and his All Girl Orchestra. Ms. Monk, billed as "a professional drummer and housewife" is a gladsome expert at everything percussive, missing only spoons and washboard. As staged by Larry Forde, the show seems self-directed.

"Oil City Symphony" is more cabaret than theater and runs only about 80 minutes (including an unneeded intermission). But what can one say about a musical that succeeds in getting its audience to stand up and do the hokey pokey and to sing along on a chorus of "In the Sweet By and By"? After an encore, the cast makes a quick exit across the basketball floor, and, as promised, the actors serve punch and cookies in the lobby. "Oil City Symphony" is its own refreshment, a musical with charm and a sure sense of its own identity.

OIL CITY SYMPHONY, written and performed by Mike Craver, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk and Mary Murfitt; directed by Larry Forde; set designer, Jeffrey Schlissler; sound designer, Otts Munderloh; lighting designer, Natasha Katz; associate producers, Thomas DeWolfe and George Gordon. Presented by Lois Deutchman, Mart T. Nealon and David Musselman. At Circle in the Square (Downtown), 159 Bleecker Street.