'Fifth Season' unsettled, but fun Review: Five very different women are united in the hope of braving the West in Olney Theatre premiere. The musical is no pioneer, but it's got a song in its heart.

June 21, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

If women think they have it tough in the 1990s, they should consider the pioneer women who staked claims in the Western territories.

Five of those women are the subject of "The Fifth Season," a musical making its world premiere at Olney Theatre Center.

Though not flawless, "The Fifth Season" -- music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, libretto by Kathleen Cahill -- is one of the better new musicals staged by this theater, which has a patchy record with musical premieres.

The show's quintet of fictitious women includes: A prim schoolteacher and single mother (Jennifer Kathleen Murray); a part black, part Native American woman returning to the land where she was born (Beverly Cosham); a domestic who has answered an ad for a housekeeper, only to discover the advertiser was looking for a wife (Erin Dilly); a wealthy East Coast woman eager to prove she can make her way in a man's world (Melinda Klump); and, most colorful of all, Viola, a dance hall hoofer running from a dangerous relationship (Anita Hollander).

We meet these five in the opening number, which also sets up the relatively simple plot. The year is 1907 and parcels of South Dakota are being offered by lottery. Each woman buys a lottery ticket, as do several men (though, in reality, male homesteaders greatly outnumbered their female counterparts). Not until the final scene do we find out who will get a chance at the new life they sing about.

Among the show's assets is its highly American subject matter -- not just in terms of history, but also the quintessentially American theme of reinventing yourself.

All five actresses, under Jim Petosa's direction, succeed admirably in creating distinct, sympathetic characters, particularly Dilly as the independent housekeeper, who ends up falling for her gentlemanly employer (Kurt Johns); cherubic Murray as the prissy schoolteacher; and Hollander as bawdy Viola, who transforms not only her own life, but the lives of most of the others.

The show's shortcomings begin with the lack of action in the slow first act and continue with the predictable outcomes of the subplots in the second. The men competing for land are so poorly defined, they're interchangeable. The budget may have prohibited this, but a larger male chorus would have given a more realistic sense of the odds against the small contingent of self-sufficient women.

A more serious problem is the sound of the score (whose individual numbers are not identified). Composer La Puma had a grand opportunity to create music with an indigenous American flavor. But with rare exceptions -- a folk-influenced snippet, an occasional Native American rhythm, or the jazzy duets sung by Viola and her violent lover (Christopher Flint) -- the score sounds more like late-20th-century Sondheim than turn-of-the-century Americana. This is exacerbated by the instrumentation. A good old American fiddle, harmonica or brass would lend some of the period authenticity sacrificed by the production's piano and two synthesizers.

This musical about pioneers is not itself a pioneer. Instead, it is strongly reminiscent of two fine forebears -- the lovely chamber musical, "Quilters," and the excellent 1995 PBS special, "Nobody's Girls: Five Women of the West." For the most part, "The Fifth Season" does these forebears proud.

The musical's title refers to a law that granted title to the land only after five years. Since this information is rather arcane -- not to mention that the show ends when the five years begin -- it's not an ideal choice. But like the other difficulties with this largely enjoyable musical, it's nothing a little reworking can't improve.

'Fifth Season'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Sundays and selected Saturdays and 2 p.m. selected Thursdays; through July 14

Tickets: $23-$28

Call: (301) 924-3400

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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