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THEATER REVIEW / 'OIL CITY SYMPHONY' : Nostalgia High : The Lobero Theatre production strikes resonant chords with a staged alumni reunion of musical chums.

February 04, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Remember that teen garage band you once played in? Or your bit part in that tacky high school production of "The Tempest?" Or those other loyalty tests of your friends and relatives that make you cringe with embarrassment when you think back on them?

Don't worry--your secret's safe. Instead, you can revel in the reminiscences of someone else's amateur foibles--and maybe a covert nostalgia for your own--as the "Oil City Symphony" strikes some hilarious resonant chords in the latest Pasadena Playhouse production to cycle through Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre.

A reunion concert in a small-town high school gym by a quartet of middle-aged alumni is the setting for this high-spirited romp by Mike Craver, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk and Mary Murfitt. Co-creators Craver and Hardwick also star, guaranteeing the purity of their artistic vision.

But for the characters they portray, artistic vision exceeds implementation by a long shot.

During their "concert," the former classmates once again pursue their passion to create music that is "fun, challenging, and--we hope--easy listening"--mingled with biographical asides that bring us up to date on what the intervening years have wrought.

The lives of the "Symphony" members have followed diverse though uniformly undistinguished paths. One thing's for sure--they're no better musicians now than they were then, though their conviction that they're really talented is a big part of the fun.

Nerdy Mark (Hardwick), the band's thick-spectacled front man and pianist, still lives at home with his mother, but acts out his Jerry Lee Lewis fantasies behind the ivories.

Drummer Debby (Klea Blackhurst) is now a squeaky-clean homemaker in the Tipper Gore mold, though she still performs in front of Sears for Saturday afternoon shoppers.

Mary (Emily Mikesell), who plays the violin, sax and flute, reached her career high point playing Anita in a local production of "West Side Story." She has little to say besides a philosophical reflection on the violin: "Of all the instruments made by man, none is more mysterious . . . "

Though he's now back in Oil City, the more worldly synthesizer player Mike (Craver) lived in San Francisco during the Summer of Love and played with an acid-rock band called Thursday's Grief.

Their concert is a cornucopia of corn--featuring their stock classics like the "Anvil Chorus" and "Dizzy Fingers," plus a medley of patriotic American anthems and marches into which Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" seems to have inexplicably wandered.

The band members show off their composing skills as well with original pieces such as the frenetic "Beehive Polka," which features a rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the accordion. And who could resist the sentimental tug of "Bus Ride," an ode to the Oil City High senior class trip to Knott's Berry Farm?

Second-rate is more than an occasional lapse for these folks. To them it's a way of life. So it comes as no surprise they'd pick the mediocre "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" as their classic rock number, complete with the plodding drum solo that re-creates the notorious Iron Butterfly original.

Never swaying from the characters' earnest intentions, the appealing "Oil City" cast treads a deceptively fine line--just bad enough to be funny, but not too bad to be unlistenable. While the joke wears a bit thin by the second act, the show's over before it's worn out its welcome.

And there's punch and cookies in the lobby afterward.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Oil City Symphony," performed through Feb. 14 at the Lobero Theatre, 33 Canon Perdido St. in Santa Barbara. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 9 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $31.50. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes. Call (805) 583-8700 for reservations or further information.

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