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'O PIONEERS!' PLOWS FERTILE GROUND

Halfway into Center Stage's monthlong rehearsal period for "O Pioneers!," a music theater piece adapted from Willa Cather's 1913 novel, director Stan Wojewodski Jr. brought the singers and actors together for the first time.

As the singers began to intone the harmonies of "Transformation Song," which comes midway through the show, composer Kim D. Sherman walked across the back of the room, silently mouthing the words and clasping her hands, as if in prayer.

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It may have been an unconscious gesture, but it seemed appropriate.

After nearly three years of work, including workshops in New York and Seattle as well as a full production at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company last January, "O Pioneers!" is receiving an all-new production at Center Stage, opening Wednesday.

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"This production feels like we're going to finally get it," Ms. Sherman says.

To a certain extent, creating a play is about making something out of nothing. And for playwright Darrah Cloud, who adapted the script, that is also a central theme in Cather's novel about the late 19th century immigrant experience.

"I think every individual, no matter what their culture, makes something out of nothing -- and that's their life," Ms. Cloud explains. In literal terms, the immigrants in "O Pioneers!" settle on the Nebraska prairie, which is barren at the beginning and fertile at the end.

The novel focuses on an independent-minded Swedish immigrant named Alexandra Bergson who comes to Nebraska with her family in the 1870s. As a young woman, she inherits her father's homestead. Against a backdrop of tragedy, family in-fighting and self-denial, she learns to work with the land instead of against it, eventually becoming a prosperous farmer and landowner.

"O Pioneers!" was Cather's first novel, and it is widely regarded as the work in which she discovered her literary voice. It also placed a number of obstacles in the path of its adapter and composer.

Not the least of these was the fact that the author's will -- Cather died in 1947 -- prohibited stage or film adaptations of her fiction, a stipulation she made after being profoundly disappointed by a film version of another of her novels, "A Lost Lady." But in 1988 the copyright on "O Pioneers!" expired, and the Women's Project, a New York group dedicated to promoting women's theater, commissioned Ms. Cloud and Ms. Sherman to write a music theater adaptation.

A longtime Cather fan, Ms. Cloud acknowledges that going against the author's wishes was a concern. But, she insists, "I also think that if she were alive she'd really like this. We've been very faithful. I really tried to keep in her voice."

Mr. Wojewodski, also a Cather enthusiast, agrees. The work succeeds, he believes, largely because of the non-traditional approach Ms. Cloud and Ms. Sherman have taken

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to the material, fashioning a new form of music theater, geared specifically to meet its needs.

"I think Willa Cather might like it because it's not an effort to make a play out of a novel. I think that rarely succeeds with first-rate novels. There's the old saying that every piece of literature worth adapting for the stage can't be," Mr. Wojewodski says.

"What Darrah and Kim have discovered here is a form that accommodates the spirit of the novel and doesn't shortchange the spirit and at the same time doesn't pretend to substitute the theatrical response for what sitting down and reading the novel would be."

The form they came up with bears little resemblance to the standard American musical. The most obvious difference is that the main characters don't sing. Instead, Ms. Sherman explains, "The singing functions more like a Greek chorus, [expressing] some inner thoughts and some large ideas."

One of the largest ideas it expresses is the expansiveness of the prairie. The land is one of Alexandra's chief antagonists in "O Pioneers!" and portraying it was tricky. "We decided the music was the land," Ms. Cloud says, making a complex concept sound extremely simple.

As an example of the way this works, she explains, "In the dark times, [Ms. Sherman] has written things that are harsher. Then when the land transforms, everything gets more tuneful."

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The music is performed by eight on-stage singers, who also play minor characters, and a six-piece pit orchestra consisting of a cello, clarinet, French horn, violin, accordion and piano. "The instrumentation is not trying to be period music at all," Ms. Sherman says. "I wanted the music to be a larger idea in the spirit of the whole."

In terms of the script, Ms. Cloud discovered that one of the major obstacles was that the novel contains vast amounts of description and relatively little dialogue. But having never done an adaptation before, she admits, "I was too ignorant of the process to know if it was daunting." In a sense, however, the novel's sparse dialogue granted her more freedom. And, of course, it helped considerably that the script didn't have to carry the full weight of the novel, but shared the burden with the musical score.

Although Ms. Cloud and Ms. Sherman had both worked at Center Stage before -- and, coincidentally, grew up in Illinois towns less than 50 miles apart -- they had never met before "O Pioneers!" "It was an arranged marriage," the composer jokes.

Ms. Sherman, 36, is in her second season as an associate artist at Center Stage. She composed music for three of the theater's Shakespearean productions -- "All's Well That Ends Well," "The Tempest" and "Hamlet," all directed by Mr. Wojewodski. And it was she who interested Mr. Wojewodski in staging this second full production of "O Pioneers!"

Ms. Sherman drifted into writing for the theater while she was studying music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. "The theater department was in the same building, and I was one of the few who crossed over," she says. She also suggests, "The one thing people say about my music is it's dramatic, which is probably why I'm attracted to theater."

After "O Pioneers!" Ms. Sherman will be working on another Center Stage project -- an operetta adapted from Ibsen's "Love's Comedy," to be produced within the next two seasons. She's also in the beginning stages of work on a musical version of Max Shulman's novel "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!," which will have a book and lyrics by Center Stage associate artistic director Rick Davis.

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Ms. Cloud, 35, has worked at Center Stage only once before, but the experience came at a formative point in her career. In 1982, as part of the former First Stage program, the theater presented a reading of her first play, "The House Across the Street."

Ms. Cloud had spent the previous fall checking coats in a Manhattan restaurant, and during the next five years she supported her playwriting habit with odd jobs including serving as personal secretary to a multimillionairess and teaching journalism in the New York jail system.

Then the Los Angeles Theatre Center produced her play, "The Stick Wife," about the wife of a Ku Klux Klansman. After that, as she puts it, "Hollywood called." Jessica Lange has optioned the script for future production. And currently, Ms. Cloud is writing a movie of the week for Fox Television based on a real-life story about a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., family that claimed to be haunted.

Meanwhile, another of her plays, "The Mud Angel," about a Wisconsin family and their horse, is currently playing a limited engagement off-off-Broadway.

The "arranged marriage" of these two theater artists has gone so smoothly that Mr. Wojewodski says, "They're are able to finish each other's sentences. And that's good because they're speaking with the same voice."

And although there are no definite plans, Ms. Cloud and Ms. Sherman would like to work together again. For now, however, they've been busy fine-tuning "O Pioneers!" Ms. Sherman estimates that 30 percent of the show has been rewritten since Boston. Most of the rewrites have been aimed at darkening the texture of the piece. They have also dropped one song and added four more.

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Center Stage won't be the only place to see "O Pioneers!" this season. The Huntington Theatre version was taped by PBS' "American Playhouse" series and will be broadcast in the spring. And, in what might be seen as an official refutation of Cather's prohibition against adaptations, "O Pioneers!" will be staged this summer at Kearney State College, 50 miles from Red Cloud, Neb., where Cather spent much of her girlhood.

Ms. Cloud predicts there will be additional adaptations of Cather's writing as more of it comes into the public domain. Will this send Cather spinning in her grave? Not necessarily.

"The more the media gets a hold of her work, the more people will go back and read her," Ms. Cloud says. "If the media will do that for her work, it's worth going against her wishes."

'O Pioneers!'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Previews tonight and Tuesday; opens Wednesday and continues through Dec. 23.

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Tickets: $8 to $29.

Call: 332-0033.



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