nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
March 21, 2012
Li’l Abner, a musical based on the comic strip characters created by Al Capp that was a hit in 1956, is being given a cute dust-off by Musicals Tonight!, Mel Miller’s off-off-Broadway sibling of the Broadway Encores series, that has been reviving lost musicals in staged readings since 1998. Very much a product of its time, Li’l Abner is an Eisenhower Era gentle political satire that resonates somewhat to the 21st Century but has so many creaks in its book that it is easy to see why no major revivals have been mounted. Still, the current staged reading is entertaining and a fun way to spend an evening in the theater, partly as a window into our musical past and partly just because the spunky cast fully commits to the style of the piece.
The story centers around Dogpatch, an isolated hillbilly town somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the buxom Daisy Mae’s attempts to capture the love of her life, Li'l Abner, a handsome and strapping young hillbilly who is indeed attracted to her somewhat, but not to the extent Daisy’d like. In the midst of this chase, which Al Capp kept going in the comics for decades, comes the govmint sayin’ Dogpatch has been dubbed the most unnecessary town in all of the USA and thus fittin’ to be the new testin’ grounds for atomic bombs. Everybody’s told to vamoose, even though it’s near to Sadie Hawkins Day when the girls (and especially Daisy) can propose to the boys. Quickly, it is revealed that the town is the one and only source of the one and only tree that bears the fruit for the amazing Yokumberry Tonic, that Mammy Yokum has been giving her boy Li’l Abner since birth and that is believed to be the cause of the boy’s extraordinary strength and manly physique. Govmint scientists come into play then, stop the evacuation, and send three locals to Washington to take the tonic and be test subjects. Ultimately, the tonic makes the men fit physically but duds sexually, causing the ladies to plead that they be “put back the way they wuz” and spurring the authorities to recommence the atom bomb testing in Dogpatch. Just as the bombers are flying in Pappy Yokum saves the day by finding a plaque in the town square dedicated by Abraham Lincoln to the town father, Jubilation T. Cornpone, whose cowardice was so instrumental in the Confederacy’s losing the war that the town square was declared a national shrine. As such the bombing is stopped and the boy-girl chase can commence in earnest.
Along the way, we meet some of Capp’s most memorable characters who are woven into the plot. Marryin’ Sam is sort of a local matchmaker, justice of the peace and town cheerleader. Stupefyin’ Jones can stop men in their tracks, freezing them with her good looks. General Bullmoose is the embodiment of Big Business, the capitalist who really runs the country. Appassionatta Von Climax is his sultry henchwoman who conspires to wed Li’l Abner, steal the Yokumberry Tonic formulae and then dispatch her supposed newlywed, thus giving the Tonic to Bullmoose for mass production, world domination and a giant pile of profit. Senator Phogbound and Dr. Rasmussen T. Finsdale represent the Govmint interests. Evil Eye Fleagle lurks as an agent to help Appassionata lure Li’l Abner. Moonbeam McSwine courts the Dogpatch men with her pig under her arm. Earthquake McGoon pines for Daisy Mae, almost gets to marry her, but proves a true friend helping to unite the inevitable lovebirds Daisy and Abner at the end of the show.
Under the fast paced staging of Thomas Sabella-Mills and the amazing musical direction and piano accompaniment of James Stenborg (who ably conducts from the piano unseen by audience or actors), the entire cast does credit to the comic book style of the piece. As the iconic lovebirds, Jessica Wagner makes a sweet voiced and fetching Daisy Mae, while Bill Coyne brings a pleasing voice and believable bumpkin-ness to the title character. Broadway veteran Mary Stout takes peerless comic command as Mammy Yokum. As her seemingly cowed husband who gits gumption near the play’s end, Roger Rifkin proves an excellent Pappy Yokum. Jody Cook displays a fine funny flair as Marryin’ Sam. Mike O’Carroll is fine as General Bullmoose and, despite some antediluvian lyrics, manages to pull off nicely the song “Progress is the Root of All Evil.” Almost everyone else in the ensemble takes on multiple roles and they do it well.
Lil Abner is a musical with deep roots embedded in its period. However, there are a few dramaturgical resonances which still reverberate now. For instance, the especially ironic number “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” remains an anti-paean to the generally ineffectual, stagnant Congress. But we don’t go to Musicals Tonight! for the immediate lessons of a new musical age, we go to see a glimpse of our past, in order to get insight into our American musical antecedents, and to be reminded of the foundations upon which our new musicals stand. Sometimes bedrock, sometimes shaky, they are always interesting. Once more, Mel Miller deserves credit for bringing us a work like Li’l Abner, a post war work at the dawn of the nuclear age that itself reached back to the Depression (the comic strip was born in the 1930s) for characters and comedy to help soothe uncertain times.