OIL CITY SYMPHONY
at the Halsted Theatre Centre
I don't think there's a more hilarious sight currently on a Chicago stage than Susie Vaughn-Raney playing the drums in Oil City Symphony. As Debbie, "professional drummer and homemaker" and a member of the small-town high school quartet whose reunion is the premise of this flawlessly funny musical comedy, Vaughn-Raney is a case study in comic eccentricity. The intense concentration of her tight-set Jaw as she silently keeps count, the startling bursts of "I'll-get-ya" ferocity as she smacks the cymbals in the climaxes, the strained tension as she gets her bass-drum foot pedal going during her showtopper drum solo--Debbie isn't the most tasteful drummer, but she's strong, and by God she means it. And don't be fooled by those overripe beauty-pageant features or that haphazardly rhinestone-studded prom gown either.
From her singlemindedness as she heads into a drum fill to the toothy, approval-seeking smile that takes over her face when she gets through a song with no mistakes, Vaughn-Raney has the Karen Carpenter wannabe down pat.
Vaughn-Raney's wonderful performance is only one example of the perfectly detailed comic incongruity that informs Oil City Symphony. The play is set in a southwestern hick town's social hall--the theater is festooned with pictures of trophies, prize pigs, and Future Farmers of America banners, and cookies and punch are served in the lobby after the show. Oil City Symphony mixes shrewd theatrical caricature and impeccable musicianship to create a brisk evening that, if not exactly deep, still contains enough subtlety to keep the audience believing in the characters and laughing both during and after the performance. The Oil City Symphony, we are told, is a group of people who played together as high school kids some 25 years ago and have now come together for a reunion concert in honor of their beloved music teacher. Though their adolescent innocence is long gone, the players are still the awkward but talented misfits they were as teenagers, treading a dangerously thin line between nostalgia and arrested development. Mark, the pianist (played by music director Joel Raney), is a music master at the local Presbyterian church, and his benevolent smile and Mr. Rogers gentleness cloak a closet Jerry Lee Lewis rebelliousness. Mike, (George Tenegal), the synthesizer player, is an LSD casualty now making pretty computer-generated sounds and singing idiotic tunes about flowers. And Mary, whose virtuosic violin playing blends country-western and Gypsy influences (played by Mary Murfitt, the show's coauthor and original New York lead), is a spinster music-appreciation teacher with a prim half smile that registers a lifetime of disappointment.
Together, these four take the audience on a tour through some of music's loonier nooks and crannies. The theme from Exodus, the "Anvil Chorus" from Il Trovatore, the pop standard "For Me and My Gal," "The Hokey-Pokey" (with audience participation), sentimental Appalachian melodies, a pair of Zez Confrey piano showpieces from the 1920s, Iron Butterfly's acid-rock classic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"--nothing is too offbeat or outre for these folks. The score is rounded out with a collection of original oddball novelty numbers with titles like "Beaver Ball at the Bug Club," "Beehive Polka," and "My Old Kentucky Rock and Roll Home."
A lesser show would make fun of this material and its practitioners with clumsy, deliberately bad playing. What makes Oil City Symphony genuinely engaging is that the kooks onstage are first-rate musicians who take their repertoire seriously while also having fun with it. The instrumental arrangements may be weird, but they're superbly played; and the four-part vocal harmonies shimmer with a beatific blend that Manhattan Transfer would envy. We're in the territory of marvelous musical madness previously explored by artists like P.D.Q. Bach, Anna Russell, even Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks; the contrast between the performers' deadpan dizziness and their musical finesse makes for a sublime comic style unmatched around town.
With a script by Mike Craver, Debra Monk, Mark Hardwick, and Mary Murfitt, and performed under Larry Forde's keen-eyed, ensemble-oriented direction, Oil City. Symphony is lighter-than-air entertainment--not a particularly nourishing theatrical meal, but a creamy, prettily adorned pastry of a show.