THE CENTER STAGE production of Willa Cather's ''O Pioneers!'' makes a better straight drama than it does a drama with music.
For the most part, the music is intrusive rather than integral, something you might excuse if the selections were tuneful, but only one or two are. The ''Ave Maria'' in the second act is particularly pleasing, but most of the other songs are tuneless in the Gian Carlo Minotti tradition.
Darn that man. Ever since his ''Medium'' and ''The Telephone'' appeared, composers influenced by Minotti continue to imitate him. Kim D. Sherman, who did the score for this production (it has been produced in several other areas), certainly does, and it's rather a pity because the music -- when it is good -- adds to the total.
What most of these songs do is tell us what we have already learned by listening to the characters. They don't carry the action along. They bring it to a halt.
The dramatic portion of the show, which chronicles a Swedish immigrant family, is quite another matter. True, it seems to be going nowhere for the first half-hour, but then it improves, and by the time the first act is finished, you find yourself eagerly waiting the second.
And the second act doesn't disappoint. Some of the staging is awkward, and there are a few more musical selections to endure, but the drama sweeps forward, taking you with it.
Stan Wojewodski Jr. did the staging, and for the most part it is interesting. The shooting scene, however, ought to be redone, and there is a mysterious character who wanders throughout the play, his identity never revealed. At one point, Alexandra Bergson, the bulwark of this drama, says ''I know who you are.'' Maybe, but we don't. He may be Death, but who knows?
''Oh Pioneers!'' follows the lives of the Swedish family -- father, mother, daughter and three sons -- as they journey to Nebraska where they endure the cold and the summer droughts. They persist until the father dies and the daughter takes over. Shrewd, she saves the farm and brings wealth to the family.
With wealth comes the me-first thinking. When two of the brothers try to force their sister to institutionalize an eccentric man she has taken in (today, he'd be a street person), Alexandra stands her ground, something she does to the end.
One brother marries and begets three children. Another goes to college, returns home and moons over the girl he left behind, a pretty, vivacious thing who has married someone else, a brooder.
It is at this point that the drama plays a lot like ''Oklahoma!'' and when the music begins, you almost expect the players to sing about the ''wind sweeping down the plain.''
''Oh Pioneers!'' is well cast, but the evening really belongs to the leading women, Caitlin O'Connell, who plays Alexandra, and Mia Korf, who plays Marie. O'Connell, as Alexandra, is firm without being hard, feminine without being aggressive, and when she at last finds happiness you wish her well.
Korf, who is supposed to be elfin and lovely, is both those things and more.
Anders Bolang, William Foeller and Brian Cousins are the Bergson brothers, P. J. Brown is Carl, the man who loves Alexandra but feels he must become successful on his own before he can marry, and Kenneth Gray is Ivar, the eccentric. They and the others are all quite good, but it is the women who count here. The drama is, after all, told from Alexandra's viewpoint, and it is Marie who brings tragedy to the family.
The sets by Derek McLane are stark but serviceable. "O Pioneers!" will remain at Center Stage through Dec. 23.
** Life in Nebraska, as Swedish immigrants saw it.
CAST: Caitlin O'Connell, Ken Parks, Anders Bolang, William Foeller, P.J. Brown, Ted Forlow, Kenneth Gray, Ileane Gudell, Allison Charney, Sarah Paola, Brian Cousins, Mia Korf, Robertson Dean
DIRECTOR: Stan Wojewodski Jr.
RUNNING TIME: Two hours and 16 minutes with one intermission.