"Authenticity keeps 'Oil City' from getting too slick"

by Graydon Royce, Minneapolis Star Tribune

September 26, 2004 CHAN0926

Early in the second act of "Oil City Symphony," amid the camp and corn, a small spotlight focuses on Mike Craver and he sings "Iris," a sublime slice of musical poetry that wonders "is there any color bluer than my Iris' eyes?" Craver's mellow tenor voice caresses the wistful melody with an honesty that provokes a defining thought: Beneath the treacle and the nerdy charm of this slight show lies a musical virtuosity, a sincerity, that distinguishes it from others of its breed.

"Oil City" opened Friday night in the Fireside Room of the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in an unpretentious staging directed by Mary Murfitt, one of the show's creators. Craver (who plays the role of Mike) is joined by Shawn Stengel (Mark), Kathy Beaver (Mary) and Molly Wasserman (Debbie) in the portrayal of musicians who reunite to offer a recital honoring their high school teacher. Earnest folk who are happy with being squares at midlife, they eagerly devour an eclectic range of styles, from gospel quartet to rock band.

Stengel is the geekiest of the bunch, a bumbling personality full of smiles and "aw shucks" shrugs. Beaver's character bears the marks of a Scandinavian upbringing, all deadpan and repressed. The soft eloquence Craver expresses in "Iris" continues throughout the night, and Wasserman has the look of a housewife who can't wait to get out the door in the evening to go bang the drums.

It's all about the music, but the characters do step out on occasion for various bits, marked by subtle gamesmanship. Mark describes the grandeur of the piano; Debbie counters that the drum is the most ancient of all instruments. Mary boasts (just barely, of course) that the violin is the most difficult to play. Mike undercuts, noting that the synthesizer can replace them all.

Cute as it is, those moments are fluffy filler and the cast doesn't alight on them for long. They are too busy with a strange and kicky take on "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" with a flute lead, or serving up Verdi with a bluegrass fiddle. Or stepping forward and offering a serene "Sweet Bye and Bye" with a cappella harmonies so tight you couldn't slide a razor blade between the notes.

There is an authenticity to "Oil City" that somehow doesn't always show up in such cousins as "Forever Plaid" or "Nunsense." Nerdy as Mike, Mark, Debbie and Mary are, they seem to have real lives once they leave this high school gymnasium. That honesty adds to the surprising grace of this unvarnished show.

Another contributor is set designer Nayna Ramey, who has built a wonderful replica of a 1940s-era gym, from the teak rafters and working scoreboard down to the thin blue lockers, the mustard tile walls and hardwood floor.

Tons of guffaws? No. Smiles and a few moments of transcendence? That's "Oil City."

Graydon Royce is at groyce@startribune.com.