It's not hard to understand why someone would want to adapt Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers! into a musical. Frontier life, childhood flings blossoming into adult relationships, jealousy, and death are all prime musical subjects, as Oklahoma! deftly proved nearly sixty years ago. What is less clear, though, is what The Acting Company was trying to accomplish by their musical production of O Pioneers! that opened at the Women's Project Theatre last night.
The adaptation of the play's scenes by Darrah Cloud is more or less successful. There are quite a few characters, and they are all very clearly delineated. There are some moments of genuine drama and humor, which are treated well by Richard Corley's direction. The sets, lights, and costumes (by Loy Arcenas, Murell Dean Horton, and Dennis Parichy) all do a wonderful job of establishing the period. The performers, if perhaps a bit too young, all act and sing credibly, while the orchestra, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, handles the music well.
The problem with this production lies in the way the score is integrated into the show - it isn't. The songs nearly all seem peripheral to the action. The first song, for instance, talks about the danger of starting out on the frontier, the last song talks about the settlers' relationships with the land (with the lyric "It will not be my love or my brother / But the land that will bury me"), and in between songs are used to establish the scenes or the changing in years.
The lyrics, also by Cloud, don't help. They describe only the most general of feelings, and do little to allow the audience to understand the characters. There are only two exceptions to this; in the first act, two characters setting a table are singing a Swedish language lesson, and in the second act, there is a line dance in which the actors onstage sing the lyrics. While the line dance is entertaining, it's also a jarring experience, and the first time it seems like you are watching a real musical.
The songs, such as they are, aren't exactly bad. The music doesn't sound like it belongs in the time period for the show, but it's that there is so little to grab onto dramatically that sinks the score. Nearly every song could be removed from the show or accomplished in dialogue without a detrimental effect. O Pioneers! is one of those musicals where you look forward to the book scenes.
As mentioned, though, the book scenes are well handled. The story revolves more around relationships than actual events, but deals primarily with Alexandra (Erika Rolfsrud) and her struggles to hang onto the family farm when she takes it over after her father's death. Her relationship with her long-time friend Carl (Gregory Jackson), provides one romantic subplot of sorts, while her brother Emil (Evan Robertson) provides another with Alexandra's young friend Marie (Grace Hsu) and her husband (Michael Thomas Holmes).
Hsu and Rolfsrud both make their characters very likable and visible in their central roles. Jackson and Robertson do well, too, but everyone works together so well as an ensemble, very few cast members really stand out.
Ultimately, though it is not completely successful, this production of O Pioneers! - the second this season - makes a good case for Cather's novel as a subject of a musical, and it gets just about everything else right. A musical, however, needs to need its songs, and this production by The Acting Company simply doesn't.
Pictured: Erika Rolfsrud and Gregory Jackson. Photo by Ken Howardİ2001
The Acting Company