'O Pioneers!': Cather's stark prairie blossoms with song

November 23, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck

'O Pioneers!' When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Dec. 23.

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

Tickets: $8-$29.

Call: 332-0033.

**** The opening image in Center Stage's stirring music theater adaptation of Willa Cather's "O Pioneers!" is a woman in a large, dark coat silhouetted against a vast blue sky, to the plaintive strains of a solo French horn.

It is an arresting sight, setting the scene, both visually and aurally, for this magnificent evocation -- adapted by Darrah Cloud with music by Kim D. Sherman -- of Cather's underappreciated 1913 novel.

Ms. Sherman's score is as central to the piece as the Nebraska prairie is to Cather's story, which tells of the European immigrants who transformed the barren fields to fertile farmland in the late 19th century.

At times hauntingly dissonant, at times lyrically hymnlike, the score is above all strongly American, recalling Ives and Copland, with an occasional suggestion of the immigrants' European roots. There's so much music that it's tempting to categorize "O Pioneers!" as a traditional musical. But the main characters don't sing. Instead, the music is performed by a six-piece pit orchestra and a chorus of eight singers who play minor roles.

The music affects you the way the land affects Cather's proud, determined characters. In the opening song, the chorus enters designer Derek McLane's bare, wood-planked set and sings, "By God, is this America? There's nothing here." After the land has been tamed, the music becomes as melodic as a Thanksgiving hymn, with Ms. Cloud's lyrics using the same key words with opposite meaning: "Thank God, nothing will stop us now."

The plot centers around a Swedish immigrant named Alexandra Bergson, whose dying father leaves her in charge of the homestead and of her three brothers. Alexandra focuses all of her energy on making something of the land, and she is immensely successful. But, as Caitlin O'Connell's intense portrayal demonstrates, Alexandra's concentration leaves no room to understand other people -- or herself.

She doesn't realize how much her farsightedness outdistances her two small-minded brothers, obstinately played by Anders Bolang and William Foeller. And she's blind to the dangerous affection growing between her adored youngest brother and his married childhood companion; at the final preview, Brian Cousins portrayed this brother with too much seriousness and not enough sensitivity, particularly in contrast to Mia Korf's exuberant portrayal of his open-hearted sweetheart.

Only after tragedy strikes this star-crossed pair does Alexandra finally listen to her own heart, cementing the bond with her lifelong friend, Carl, played a bit too blandly by P. J. Brown.

Ms. Cloud's script encapsulates Cather's sweeping story while capturing the poetry of her prose. And director Stan J. Wojewodski's spare, unyielding staging is the theatrical realization of the vastness of the pioneer vision.

Center Stage's production is only the second time "O Pioneers!" has been fully staged. The debut production, by Boston's

Huntington Theatre Company, was taped by PBS' "American Playhouse" series for broadcast this spring. Too bad TV didn't wait for Center Stage; it's difficult to imagine a production of "O Pioneers!" more worthy of the exclamation point.

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