Oil City Symphony, the daffy Off-Broadway musical comedy in which one-time high school music students perform years later at their high school gym, gets an open-ended Manhattan revival beginning Oct. 19.
Original 1987 stars and creators Mike Craver and Mary Murfitt reteam for the Equity staging — the most intimate production yet for the cult-hit show — at Danny's Skylight Cabaret Theatre. Previously, the show was set in a high school gym in which four musician-actors portrayed awkward but ultimately talented adult musicians reuniting to pay tribute to their aged, beloved music teacher (who is pulled form the audience and serenaded). Oil City Symphony is now slightly different in concept, though Murfitt said the content is "basically the show that was in New York 13 years ago."
In order to fit into the 75-seat cabaret space within Danny's Grand Sea Palace in midtown, the show's concept now has the musicians performing at Cap'n Danny's Oriental Seafood Shack, site of annual alumni gatherings in the fictional Midwest town of Oil City. Co-creators Mark Hardwick and Craver have said in the past the city is located, roughly, in "Kentuckiana."
"Danny has spent the last year trying to make it classy, and we came in and said, 'No, we want the walls aqua!,'" Murfitt told Playbill On-Line. "It looks like you're under the sea. There are big musical notes hanging on the walls. There's a bulletin board with our high school pictures on it."
Craver said the show began simply as a two-keyboard Ferrante and Teicher-like act with co-creator Hardwick, and Debra Monk came aboard. Murfitt was the last of the quartet to join and the show — which originally had a Christmas medley in it. The early work played the Westside Arts Theatre and the South Street Theatre on 42nd Street. Producers then sent the hourlong show to Dallas, where it was developed, expanded and honed before playing Baltimore and settling into Circle in the Square in 1987. George Gordon, one of the original New York producers, is presenting the Manhattan revival, which officially opens Oct. 25. Murfitt, who created the musical, Cowgirls, directs. Joining Murfitt (violin, flute and sax) and Craver (synthesizer) on stage are John DePinto (piano and accordion) and Mary Ehlinger (drums), who had played the show regionally.
Monk and the late Hardwick also co-created the Tony Award-nominated and influential Pump Boys and Dinettes, the musical comedy concept concert that started the trend of small, vocally-driven, one-set, non-traditional musicals (Forever Plaid, The Taffetas, Nunsense). Monk, of course, would go on to be a major New York actress, performing in Broadway's Company, Steel Pier and Lincoln Center Theatre's The Time of the Cuckoo.
Oil City Symphony has been seen across the country in regional theatres and on tour, in venues with 500 or more seats. Danny's on West 46th Street seats 75, making set designer Shelly Barclay's task to include lots of detail. "There's crepe paper," Murfitt said. Designers are Michael Krass (costumes) and Bobby Kneeland (lights and sound).
The show won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical Ensemble and an Outer Critics' Circle Award for Best Off Broadway Musical.
The score mixes classic pop tunes and new songs in an interactive atmosphere in which the crowd, at one point, performs "The Hokey Pokey." Numbers in the 80-minute evening include "Stars and Stripes Forever," "Bus Ride," "Ohio Afternoon" and the novelty swing tune, "Beaver Ball at the Bug Club," among many more. The show freely mixes affection, nostalgia, satire and professional musicianship, despite the awkward surface of the characters.
Mufitt and Craver said they are trying to put together an under-the-sea medley for the seafood-restaurant theme, but weren't sure they could do it in time for opening. Depending on what season it is, the show has traditionally offered a Christmas or summer medley.
In some of its late-run New York advertising, the show was billed simply as Oil City to not mislead potential theatregoers; the show is not a visit from some regional symphony orchestra."At one point the producers thought 'symphony' was confusing people," Craver said. "But we always think of it as Oil City Symphony."
Oil City Symphony runs on an eight-show-per-week schedule, 8 PM Wednesday-Saturday, 7 PM Sunday, 3 PM Saturday and late-night shows 10:30 PM Friday-Saturday. Tickets are $35 with $10 food/drink minimum. Tickets are available through Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or at Danny's box office 4-8 PM daily, (212) 265-8130.
Danny's Grand Sea Palace/Danny's Skylight Cabaret are located at 345 W. 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues on Restaurant Row.
Oil City Symphony was preserved on a cast album.
— By Kenneth Jones