KPBS AIRDATE: January 13, 1993
Okay, word-freaks. Get out your slang dictionary and look up all the synonyms for “nerd,” because the “Oil City Symphony” has just wormed its way into Poway, courtesy of the Pasadena Playhouse and the Poway Center for the Performing Arts.
From the looks of it, Oil City should be called Geek-town. It’s a little town that time forgot, a fictional place where all the men are goobers, all the women are dodes, and the children are mutant squid.
Mark, Mike, Debbie and Mary are gaggers from the Oil City High School class of ’67. They’re baaaack, with their dorkmunder band and doofus songs. It’s a little reunion recital, especially for us. The audience is included in all the festivities, and after they’re over, the cast serves punch and cookies. But not before we’re all coaxed to our feet for a rousing rendition of the “Hokey Pokey” and a singalong of the old sweet standard, “In the Sweet By and By.” Do you believe it?
If you love high school auditoriums, white tux jackets with purple cummerbunds way above waist level, chiffon dresses and matching satin shoes, Sousa marches, polkas and “In a Gadda Da Vida,” you’re gonna go nuts for “Oil City Symphony.” If it sounds too goofy for you, it probably is, but if you’re among the scads of “Forever Plaid” fans, and your hair stood on end for “Beehive,” “The All Night Strut,” “The World Goes Round,” and “Pump Boys and Dinettes” — created by the same team as “Oil City” — and the rest of the revues that gross a million though gross some people out, your twit-ship has just come in.
Even for a die-hard skeptic like me, “Oil City Symphony” is hard to resist. First off, the four players are enormously talented. Klea Blackhurst is so perky it’s pukey, as Debbie, the prom queen manqué who plays some wicked drums. Emily Mikesell is Mary, a polyester eggo who can’t keep her knees together and is egregiously earnest, but she’s fantastic on violin and flute, and she’s slicker than Willie on sax. Mike Craver is painfully shy and achingly good on keyboards. And Mark Hardwick, well, what’s to say? He’s the Geek of the Week, the ultimate newt. Godawful goofy grin, that goes great with his accordion, but he’s also terrific at tickling the ivories.
Speaking of which, “Coaxing the Ivories” is a dynamite, full-cast piano production, with eight hands on board. The singing, especially a capella, is downright def. That is to say, fresh. Gnarly. Awesome. Even if half the songs are amazingly, intentionally lame, like the “Beehive Polka,” or the animal pun-filled “Beaver Ball at the Bug Club,” or the blowsy, bluesy “Ohio Afternoon,” which reminisces about Cayahoga and diesels on the highway.
This is definitely the best of the Poway-Pasadena co-productions thus far. Gary Wissman’s set is a hoot; it’s so high school, it makes you feel like you’re in Assembly again. From the weenie proscenium to the flag and fake palms, it’s perfect. Everyone’s right at home; Mike and Mark are two of the co-creators of the piece, and the women have been touring in it for years. They look like they’re having a helluva time. And you probably will, too.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.