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At Totem Pole, musical comedy 'Oil City Symphony' is a mix of genres

With Oil City Symphony, Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pa., in association with Caledonia Theatre Company, offers audiences an eclectic mix of music, a comedic story and a chance to meet and mingle with cast members. The show, set in the gymnasium of the old Oil City High School, features the instrumental and vocal talent of four former "band nerds" celebrating their 20th high school reunion. They have come back to pay tribute to their former music teacher, who is actually played by a different lucky audience member each night.

"It's mostly music -- like a concert, but it's got a bit of gentle satire," says Mike Craver, a member of the Oil City cast and also one of the show's co-authors. The show, which features standards such as the 1812 Overture and "Stars and Stripes Forever" as well as several original pieces, began in 1986 as a free-form collaboration among four friends -- Craver, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk and Mary Murfitt.

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"Mark and I were both pianists, and we'd always play four-handed pieces. Then when the women joined us, we were more like a lounge act. Eventually it just grew and grew until we had a full-fledged musical," says Craver, who was born and raised in North Carolina.

Craver, then a member of the acoustic folk band the Red Clay Ramblers, joined forces with Monk and Hardwick, theater veterans who were working on Broadway's Pump Boys and Dinettes, to fund production of their brainchild, which eventually became an off-Broadway sensation. After spending two years in New York and earning a Drama Desk Award, the show went on the road. In 1995 with the original cast still intact, Oil City made a stop at Baltimore's Theatre Project.

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Totem Pole's intimate setting in Caledonia State Park and its refurbished interior allow the show to do what it does best: "We really interact with our audience," says Craver. "We have a little reception in the lobby after every show with refreshments and get to hear feedback from folks in the crowd. That's really rare in musical theater."

The show, which Totem Pole's producing artistic director Carl Schurr describes as "the perfect musical comedy for the entire family," spans a range of musical genres from classical to rock 'n' roll. Craver, who performed with the original cast in 1986 and has since recorded three solo albums of folk music, says the show has been a perennial favorite with summer stock theaters.

"I've performed the show at least 1,000 times, off and on since it started," says Craver, and though he has plenty of other musical exploits, he says he'll "probably do it again." Now through Aug. 24 is the last time you can catch him for this summer, however.

Contact Totem Pole Playhouse at 717-352-2164 or 888-805-7056, or on the Web at www.totempoleplayhouse.org.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 42.


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