The Oil City Symphony Wows Slickers with Sing-Alongs, Corny Songs And—Gasp!—the Hokey-Pokey

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

If there were such a thing as a happy nightmare, this would be it. There in the gym, under the basketball hoops, stand four alums who have returned to put on a recital here at Oil City High. A former prom queen is fervidly bashing away at the drums. The woman on violin and sax sports a lavender dress with glittery epaulets. The piano player-accordionist is a wisp clad in—did they really wear this stuff?—purple pants and lavender suspenders, while the guy on synthesizer has on an ill-fitting polyester tux with pink cummerbund. They're not bad musically, but the material is, well, dubious. Consider the cloying Ohio Afternoon:

"Skylarks soaring in the blue above, Come and stay you'll never weary of Ohio afternoon."

Oh, no. Please, no. They're coming forward now. And they're asking all of us to join them in—yikes!—the hokey-pokey! Are these people real?

No, not exactly. They're the cast of Oil City Symphony, a hilarious musical that opened at New York's Circle in the Square Downtown in November and is threatening to run forever. Each night, the audience gets to sit on stiff folding chairs and share the remembered joys of a small, corny high school. Part tribute, part put-on, Oil City is a sticky mélange of 22 songs, including the dreadful Count Your Blessings and seven numbers cooked up by the cast. The whole recital is dedicated to Miss Reeves, the school's beloved music teacher, a role played by a member of the audience, who gets a corsage for her trouble. Most people just can't get enough of this. Promised Clive Barnes in the New York Post: "You will love it."

Oil City is the brainchild, if that is the word, of Debra Monk, 39, the prom queen, and Mark Hardwick, 33, the piano player, co-creators of the 1981 off-Broadway smash Pump Boys and Dinettes. All the performers have some Oil City in their backgrounds—Mary Murfitt, 33, is from Kansas; Mark Craver, 39, is from North Carolina; Monk is from Ohio and Hardwick from Texas—and all have an unerring fix on smalltown America. The audience, though, is not quite so reliable. Not long ago, the evening's Miss Reeves brought down the house with a note of pedagogical warning. "Be sure," she cried, "and practice safe sex!"

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