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O Pioneers!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

O Pioneers!, the new musical at the Producer's Club, is the kind of show that is almost impossible to watch without a smile on your face. What a shame, then, that O Pioneers! was not intended to be a musical comedy.

Based on Willa Cather's novel, O Pioneers! tells the intertwining stories of two women, Marie and Alexandra, and their lives and loves on the frontier. Alexandra is a shrewd businesswoman who falls for a childhood friend, while Marie is torn between two men that represent radically different visions of the west. Due to a number of problems, the story simply is not told well.

Take for example, the song "Summer Days." Though ostensibly musical recitative trying to establish a relationship, the song stretches to rhyme not only "remember" and "September," and "returned again" and "return to then," but "varied life" and "married life" as well.

Or, the song simply entitled "God's Turned My Heart to Stone." The song, which presents only surface emotions with no subtext, is mostly boring until it ends. In half-light after the dramatic song (recalling "Lonely House" from Oklahoma!), the actor, who has already partially exited, reaches back and grabs a portrait off the wall.

The dance numbers are also hilarious. There is more than one occasion where almost the full cast of twenty-five is dancing onstage at once. With a lot of high kicks, lifting, and spinning, it would be a miracle if they didn't bump into each other at every turn. Alas, no miracles happen in this show.

The second act, however, is slightly more serious. After all, how can you make light of a husband finding his wife in another man's embrace, who shoots them both with a shotgun, and later claims he didn't mean to do it? Or, in an otherwise realistic play, the actors miming eating apricot tarts? This play finds a way.

Who is responsible? The book writer, who doesn't bother to flesh out the characters or define the many diverging subplots of the source novel in a sensible way? The lyricist who goes to every imaginable length for a rhyme, but never manages to make the songs emotionally satisfying? The composer who aims for Richard Rodgers-style melody, but whose music doesn't serve most of the scenes? Or the director who couldn't wrangle all of these people together into creating a worthwhile musical from a very promising story of love, obligation, and pioneer spirit at the turn of the century?

Alas, one must blame all of them, for one man, Robert Sickinger, did it all. While it is clear he meant well, and while he may be a fine director (his biography in the program boasts a compliment from David Mamet), O Pioneers! suffers greatly from him wearing too many hats.

For all the other problems in the show, Sickinger generally did a fine job in selecting his cast. Lisa Neubauer, as Marie, sings her songs with a beautiful voice and acts with a pleasing earnestness, though even she cannot make some of the unintentionally funny scenes come across seriously. As Alexandra, Jennifer Trimble doesn't sing as well as Neubauer, but, despite dealing with some of the show's clumsiest sub-plots, creates a warm matronly figure that lights up the stage whenever she appears.

Fred Rueck, as Alexandra's love interest, Carl, has a strong voice and makes the most of every scene with Trimble. Oliver Burg and Matthew Morse both have their moments as competitors for Marie's affections. The ensemble has a number of very strong voices, and the dancers do their best with Brittney Jensen's frequently repetitive choreography. Most of them act well, though Michael Gillis, in a very small role as Raoul, despite having perhaps the best singing voice in the cast, overacts noticeably enough to pull focus in nearly every scene.

Unlike so many shows that make you shake your head in disbelief that such an idea could have even been conceived, O Pioneers! did not suffer from a bad idea, just poor execution. With the right collaborative give and take, this production of O Pioneers! may have worked. Unfortunately, as it stands, it is merely an excellent example of what can happen when one person wishes to exert too much control over a production.

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O Pioneers!
Book, Music, Lyrics, and Direction by Robert Sickinger
Based on the novel by Willa Cather
Through May 6
Producer's Club II, 616 9th Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets
Ticket Orders and Information: (888) 590-9220