Hillbilly Hokum and 1950s Shenanigans in Dogpatch, USA, As Kelsey Theatre Stages Rousing Musical, “Li’l Abner”
It’s “a typical day in Dogpatch, USA,” which means that the menfolk are doing a lot of sleeping, fishing, swapping lies, making Kickapoo Joy Juice moonshine and collecting unemployment, while the women are doing all of the work and looking forward to the Sadie Hawkins Day race when they hope to catch and marry the men of their dreams. The beautiful young Daisy Mae declares her “one aim in life is to be a good wife, and marry Li’l Abner someday!” The “mystical” and pugilistical” Mammy Yokum is “sassiety’s queen,” who “heads the local machine.” Meanwhile her tall, handsome, good-hearted son Abner, a model of innocence in a corrupt, scheming world, spends most of his energy running away from Daisy and other marriage-seeking young women.
Currently playing at Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County College in an M&M Stage production, the 1956 musical Li’l Abner is based on characters created by Al Capp in his long running (1934-1977) comic strip. It features an array of larger-than-life stereotypes of the rural South, of male-female relationships and of heroes and villains in the world of the 1950s.
The original production, with lyrics and music by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul and book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, ran for 693 performances on Broadway in 1956-57, followed by a nationwide tour and 1959 movie. The show has remained popular in schools, colleges, and community theaters, though there has never been a major professional revival. The show includes an assortment of amusing, appealing characters, some memorable musical numbers, and some mostly mild satire that often, in the style of Mark Twain via Al Capp, hits home, even six decades after its composition. Despite this worthy, spirited Kelsey production, however, Li’l Abner does suffer from a bit of creakiness and corniness in the plot, seems a bit dated in its 1950s subject matter and traditional musical comedy style, and, at two hours and 45 minutes, goes on about half an hour too long.
Under the skillful direction of Matt South, the capable M&M (Mike Almstedt and Mike Dilorio, producers) ensemble cast of 26 successfully brings the world of Dogpatch, USA to life. Strong voices and experienced actors in most of the leading roles, along with lively, sure-handed choreography by Laura Murey-Ghaffoor and the capable pit orchestra of 15 under the baton of Charlie DeMets ensure a smooth-running, engaging evening.
The “Typical Day” in Dogpatch, with Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft) and Daisy Mae (Amber Payne) at an enamored yet uncommitted stand-off, quickly spirals into pandemonium when Senator Phogbound (Chuck Denk) arrives to inform the town that the government plans to turn Dogpatch into a nuclear testing ground. Even worse, the evacuation of the townspeople is scheduled to take place before Sadie Hawkins Day, when the local young ladies were all counting on catching their desired mates. Marryin’ Sam (Del Howard), of course, was looking forward to the resulting boost in income.
The only way to save the day is to find something necessary about the town. Could the secret lie in the Yokumberry tonic that Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) has spoon fed to Li’l Abner every day since he was a baby? Li’l Abner courageously heads to Washington D.C. with the secret formula, but General Bullmoose (Tom Bessellieu), a consummate businessman, plans to trap him into marrying Bullmoose’s secretary Appassionata Von Climax (Kristina Lunetta) and acquire Yokumberry tonic for his own purposes. Meanwhile Daisy Mae has agreed to marry Earthquake McGoon (Evan Bilinski) if he will help her to rescue Li’l Abner, and they, along with an animated contingent of Dogpatchers, descend upon General Bullmoose’s mansion and the government testing laboratory, where the eccentric Dr. Finsdale (Joe Zedeny) and his colleagues are working assiduously to use the Yokumberry formula to create a “brave new world” of superior human beings (“Oh Happy Day”). How will Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner ever get together? How will Dogpatch ever survive?
Mr. Kraft and Ms. Payne in the starring roles are a convincing, attractive romantic duo. In duets (“Namely You” and “Love in a Home”) and other individual and ensemble numbers, they present harmonious, beautiful singing, on-target character work and fine chemistry.
Ms. Kutalek’s Mammy Yokum is suitably feisty, energetic, even acrobatic, strong-willed and entertaining, while Mr. Howard, as Marryin Sam, slick and dapper in black hat and suit with blue vest, provides a vibrant character and a dynamic catalyst for several of the best numbers in the show. A polished dancer with a strong singing voice, Mr. Howard leads the ensemble in the hilarious and rousing “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” in praise of the bumbling Confederate general whose statue graces the Dogpatch town square (“Stonewall Jackson got his name by standing firm in the fray./But who was known to all his men as good ol’ ‘Paper Mache?’”), and also in the sharply satirical, and timely — some things never change, at least not for the better — “The Country’s In the Very Best of Hands” and “The Matrimonial Stomp.”
Mr. Bessellieu’s General Bullmoose delivers a forcefully dramatic caricature of “the military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned against, and his two signature numbers, “What’s Good for General Bullmoose” (“is good for the USA”) and “Progress Is the Root of All Evil,” help to reveal and develop this charismatic villain.
Other colorfully striking characters populating the production include Mr. Parton’s laid-back Pappy Yokum (with interesting resemblance to Jerry Garcia), Mr. Bilinski’s powerfully threatening McGoon, Ms. Lunetta’s alluring Appassionata, and Mr. Zedeny’s zany Dr. Finsdale. The supporting ensemble, representing a range of experience and talent, displays fine vocal accomplishments, simple and appealing choreography, and amusing characterizations of the eccentric, zealous Dogpatchers and others to keep the evening moving with energy and focus.
Mr. Almstedt’s brightly-colored set design is functional and effective in helping to create the several different locales in Dogpatch and Washington, D.C., though more speedy set changes would be helpful in driving the plot forward and keeping audience focus. Robert Rutt’s lighting, Louisa Murey’s costumes and Nick Mastalesz’s sound all coordinate together smoothly to bring Al Capp’s wacky world to life on the Kelsey stage.
All in all, M&M’s Li’l Abner — though a bit corny, a lot dated, occasionally tiresome — nonetheless delivers an enjoyable evening of lively music, captivating characters, witty satire, and entertaining humor.
M&M’s production of “Li’l Abner” runs for one more weekend, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, August 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 10, in the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Call (609) 570-3333 or visit www.kelseytheatre.net for tickets and information.