‘Oil City’ is hip with its squares

Times Staff Writer

Why are there no football geeks? It’s always the band kids -- and their artsy or brainy compatriots -- who are made to seem out of step.

Well, no more. The band kids, now grown, are pretty cool nowadays at Oil City High School, where four tremendously talented, if undeniably nerdy, alums are making a return appearance.

To catch the quartet’s special-event concert, you’ll first have to find the Oil City High School auditorium. That’s not how it’s labeled in any Thomas Bros. book. Look instead for Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium, renamed for the run of “Oil City Symphony.”

Crepe-paper streamers and balloons festoon the hall, which currently resounds with unconventional but terrifically intricate -- and often hilarious -- renditions of the Anvil Chorus, the 1812 Overture, the “Exodus” theme and such out-of-left-field surprises as Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic, 1968-vintage “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.”


Original cast members and creators Mary Murfitt and Mike Craver, who crafted the show in the mid-1980s with Debra Monk and the late Mark Hardwick, are joined by more recent “Oil City” cohorts Molly Wassermann and Shawn Stengel for this presentation by FCLO Music Theatre, otherwise known as Fullerton Civic Light Opera.

At first skittish and stiff, they take the stage to demonstrate the high-school-honed talents they’ve recently been repolishing to take public. They’re ordinary folk of a certain age, hairstyles out of date, hidden behind glasses. In most situations, they’d pass unnoticed. But onstage as Oil City Symphony, Stengel channels Jerry Lee Lewis into his classical piano playing, Wassermann funnels her inexhaustible perkiness through the drums, Craver whales on his synthesizer, and ever-so-pinched, rigid-as-a-two-by-four Murfitt momentarily sheds her inhibitions to reveal what Janis Joplin might have sounded like if she’d played violin.

Sometimes, their playing is amusingly overenthusiastic, especially when the giddy Wassermann weighs in with percussive punctuation. Several of the vocal moments, on the other hand, are beautifully modulated. The hymns “Count Your Blessings” and “In the Sweet By and By” are enfolded in soft, sweet harmonies.

Everything crackles in this presentation, which is directed by Murfitt, who performed in “Cowgirls,” another of her laugh-along music shows, for FCLO in 1999.

The show is slight as can be yet can’t fail to impress, for it’s an exacting proving ground for four multitalented multi-instrumentalists-singers.

The audience responds with its own kind of music: tinkles of laughter and squeals of approval.



‘Oil City Symphony’

Where: Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and July 26; 7 p.m. this Sunday

Ends: July 27

Price: $25 to $52

Contact: (714) 879-1732

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes