Consider what Rodgers & Hammerstein might have done with a musical about the Dakota land rush of 1907 (“Souuuuuuuuuth Dakota/Where the wind goes whistling down the plains”) and you’ll realize how ambitious Olney Theatre’s The Fifth Season is. Composer Deborah Wicks La Puma and lyricist/librettist Kathleen Cahill have chosen to deal not merely with love on the prairie but with the hardships of homesteading, the displacement of native peoples, the persistence of pioneer women in the face of unyielding sexism, and the desperation that led them to view the danger and isolation of a forbidding landscape as preferable to the supposed comforts of civilization. One of the heroines even loses a leg at the top of the second act, and somehow trundles on.
If earnestness were all, this musical would be in fine shape, for its creators have approached these topics with skill, a reasonable degree of cleverness, and evident passion. What they haven’t done, alas, is provide their heroines with the sorts of choices that might allow the evening to assume the shape of drama. Once each has sung of her dreams and doubts in the first few numbers, it’s so clear where she’ll end up that the only remaining question is who’ll win the land lottery around which the evening is built. In their zeal to reward stick-to-itiveness, the authors ultimately manage to remove even that smidgen of suspense. What they’ve replaced it with is time-filling but largely inconsequential incident.
“The land formerly known as the Brule [Indian] Reservation is hereby open to settlement,” says a government official as the first song gets under way, and on the next downbeat, white folks quite literally come out of the woodwork to grab whatever acreage they can. Actually, a couple of African-American faces can be seen among them, coughing up prairie dust as well as the $5 fee for a ticket that may allow them to own some of it. In this opening sequence, the men’s voices dominate, but the evening’s focus quickly shifts to the women—five disparate, hardy souls who’ve come to the Dakota Territory village of Pierre to stake their claim to independence.
First among equals is Viola (Anita Hollander), a brassy, sharp-tongued floozy who wants to open a saloon, and who is using booze and bravado to mask a life-threatening injury so she won’t get pushed aside. (Hollander lost most her left leg to cancer some years ago, so the script isn’t bluffing when it threatens her character with the loss of a limb. Fortunately, the performer’s dyspeptically acid delivery of such lines as “let’s roast him and eat him,” which she says after kicking the motionless body of a brutal ex-lover, and her straightforward physical performance keeps her casting from being just an attention-getting gimmick.)
Viola’s philosophical opposite is a teetotaling, pint-size, unwed mother named Ida (Jennifer Kathleen Murray), who plans to support herself by teaching school. Joining them is Mary (Beverly Cosham), an earthy woman of mixed African and Native-American parentage, who failed in an earlier settling attempt (“My corn died in the heat/My sheep died in the cold”) and is looking for a second chance. Strong-willed Abigail (Erin Dilly) has answered a help-wanted ad for a housekeeper only to discover that the man who placed it is really looking for a wife. And giddy, excitable Wilomene (Melinda Klump) turns out to be a closeted lesbian heiress from Schenectady who’s yearning to breathe free.
Of the men, only Clyde (Kurt Johns), the gentlemanly, book-reading, tree-planting, curtain-sewing, tomato-canning Mr. Perfect who placed the help-wanted ad—and whom Abigail would clearly be nuts to pass up, though she dithers and dallies through several songs before realizing that—really comes into focus. The others are there to provide vocal support and throw wood into the rafters, make-work that is identified as such, and then lamented in Cahill’s lyrics (“There’s nothin’ doin’ out here….We got too much time on our hands”).
If the cast members also seem to have too much time on their hands, it’s not because there’s nothin’ doin’, exactly. Between arguin’ amongst themselves and then puttin’ aside disagreements when Viola can no longer hide the severity of her injury, there’s plenty doin’—just nothin’ that offers real alternatives. For instance, Viola and Ida debate whether to convert the town’s general store into a saloon or a school—“just imagine…” urges one, “just a minute…” counters the other in a typically graceful Cahill lyric—but the store’s proprietor isn’t buying either plan, so at song’s end, the women, the town, and the audience are all left precisely where they started.
A different sort of stasis afflicts the romance between Abigail and Clyde, where matrimony is such a foregone conclusion that the authors’ delaying tactics become actively annoying. The choices confronting a real-life Abigail, lured a thousand miles into a wilderness on false pretenses, might well be both harrowing and varied. The choice confronting the stage Abigail is whether to marry Mr. Perfect or chuck her dreams. And she should resist this paragon of virtue because…what? Because he’s self-effacing and sweet? Because he’ll embrace her independence? Because he’s the best catch in the show?
Dilly is an engaging, resourceful performer, but she can’t make sense of the character’s motivations without a little help from the script, which is instead crammed with vignettes designed to show the importance of women to the nation’s westward expansion. If Cahill and La Puma had spent more time sharpening the conflicts between their characters and less working on songs that establish, say, a Native American woman’s healing prowess with herbs, the show might well have developed a dramatic through line.
What a director can do to clarify and push material until it seems to be going somewhere, Jim Petosa has mostly done, though oddly, he hasn’t been able to find a way for choreographer Carole Graham Lehan to help him. There’s a promising moment when some of the wood that’s being shifted from one perch in the rafters to another gets thumped rhythmically against the floorboards in time with the music, but it doesn’t come to much. Mostly the cast, attired in suitably earthy tones and textures by Rosemary Pardee, just masses forcefully in one spot, then disperses to mass forcefully in another.
Because the Olney Theatre was once a barn, and designer James Kronzer has visually extended the auditorium’s unfinished timbers into his setting, the actors and audience seem to be inhabiting the same space, an effect that’s nicely environmental, especially when Kronzer throws open the barn doors at the rear of the stage to reveal an amber sky wide as all outdoors. Credit Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting for the golden glow and loads of atmospheric shadows. The show looks as solid and as assured as its creators could wish.
And it generally sounds fine, too, though La Puma’s music takes some getting used to. Her score is at once bouncy and dissonant, with its roots in blues and folk traditions and its head in some decidedly modernist clouds. The composer doesn’t really avoid conventional melody, but she tends to resolve musical phrases with the one note patrons couldn’t possibly expect. This can be liberating in patter songs and expository numbers but can bring ballads back to earth at precisely the moment you expect them to soar. Still, her anthemic opening number is a corker, and several of her subsequent songs live up to its promise. (More would if Cosham, who possesses a lovely resonance on low notes, were allowed to sing in her most interesting register.)
Though the Olney’s world premiere engagement is professional and polished, it’s probably best to view The Fifth Season as a work in progress. If the authors can somehow get past their perfectly understandable but dramatically crippling urge to educate audiences about pioneer women in general, and devote their energies to crafting a story these particular pioneer women can inhabit, they’ll have something.CP