Sunday, July 18, 2010

Li'l Abner

‘LI’L ABNER’ cute but lacking at Mercury Summerstock

This month the U. S. Postal Service issued it’s “funnies” series. The stamps honor the likes of Archie, Dennis the Menace, and Calvin and Hobbes. Unfortunately, missing from the list are two comic strips that led to Broadway musicals: Little Orphan Annie and Li’l Abner. A version of the latter is now on stage at Mercury Summer Theatre.

‘LI'L ABNER,’ with book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, music by Gene De Paul, and lyrics by Johnny Mercer is a satirical look at the inhabitants of Dogpatch, USA (Kentucky). The comic strip, written and drawn by Al Capp, ran from August 13, 1934 through November 13, 1977. The Broadway production, directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd opened on November 15, 1956 and ran for 693 performances.

The somewhat dated musical is a spoof of hillbillies but also points zingers at the incompetent federal government, corrupt politicians, and perceptions of masculinity.

Just before the traditional Sadie Hawkins Day race when Daisy Mae is again “yurnin’ to ketch” the handsome, muscle bound, emotionally void Li’l Abner, Dogpatch is declared the "most unnecessary town" in the U.S. and is set to be turned into a nuclear testing site. The only thing that will save it is to locate something that makes the area a national treasure. Of course, in the end, as is true of all musical spoofs, things “turns out fer the best.”

Besides Li’l Abner, whose family name, “Yokum,” cartoonist Al Capp conjured up by combining “yokel” with “hokum,” and Daisy Mae, she who gave the signature name to short-shorts, all the well known comic strip’s characters are present including Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Marryin’ Sam, Earthquake McGoon, Evil Eye Fleagle, General Bullmoose, Stupefyin’ Jones and Senator Phogbound.

The original Broadway cast starred Peter Palmer in the title role, Edie Adams as Daisy Mae, and the marvelous Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam. A film based on the stage musical was released in 1959, with most of the Broadway cast reprising their roles.

The clever words and the catchy music include “A Typical Day,” “If I Had My Druthers,” “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands,” and the cute ballad, “Namely You.”

The Mercury production, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, has many creative moments and some right-on performances. However, to make this show work, the staging and attitude must be one of comic strip level farce and attitude. No tongue and cheek here. Out-and-out comic mayhem must let loose, as was the case with the Broadway production. Unfortunately, though the performers try, the Mercury cast just doesn’t make the show explode.

When I saw the show in the Big Apple, my feet were constantly tapping and I had a feeling of total glee. In the Mercury production I smiled and appreciated the many creative moments conceived by Brault, but I wanted more. I wanted more of what Brian Marshall created with his over-the-top Pappy Yokum. Though they gave good performances, I still wanted even more exaggeration from Kelvette Beachman as Mammy Yokum and Dan DiCello as Marryin’ Sam. We needed a more stupefying Stupefyin’ Jones and more macho braggart Earthquake McGoon. Why did Evil Eye Fleagle, whose quirky actions were well developed by Ryan Thompson, have a Russian accent? Capp said of the character, “The zoot suit-clad Fleagle was a native of Brooklyn, and his burlesque New York accent was unmistakable.”

Jason Leupold has the face, hair, height and the singing voice for Abner, but he lacked the physique and vulnerable manhood. Leupold gave us sweet boyhood. Annie Hickey had the Daisy Mae look, except for the ill coifed wig. Her voice was a little shallow but she developed a charming rendition of “I’m Past My Prime,” with Marryin’ Sam. The male chorus sang and danced well, but didn’t fit the part of super studs when they were supposedly transformed into Abner-duplicates by Mammy’s potion.

Fun numbers were “Jubilation T. Cornpone” and “Progress Is the Root of All Evil.” On the other hand, “The Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet” went on and on and on, wearing out the cast and the audience.

As usual, Musical Director Eddie Carney did a great job of keeping his well-tuned orchestra under control so they backed up, rather than drowned out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Mercury’s ‘LI’L ABNER’ is a pleasant evening of diversion, but could have been so much more fun if it had been played even broader and the cast had really let loose.