Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Li'l Abner is a Passel of Fun
Li'l Abner and I go way back to the 1940s. It was my favorite cartoon when I was in high school and I agree with the critics who have called it "the greatest comic strip of all time." I saw the 1940 RKO film version with Jeff York as the hunk and Martha O'Driscoll as Daisy Mae (Buster Keaton had a small role in this non-musical film). I was at the premiere at the St. James Theatre when the musical was presented on November 15, 1956, and featured Edie Adams, Stubby Kaye and the wonderful Charlotte Rae as Mammy Yokum. Peter Palmer looked and acted like Dogpatch's favorite citizen, Li'l Abner. It ran an amazing 693 performances. I was also privileged to be part of Daniel L. Fapp's cinematography team for the Paramount VistaVision film of the musical with Peter Palmer repeating his role, Leslie Parish playing Daisy Mae, and Stubby Kaye repeating his role as Marryin' Sam. The stately Julie Newmar made her screen debut as Stupifyin' Jones.
Since that time, the musical has been a regular staple at school and summer camps. It finally received a full scale production at Goodspeed this year and received good notices.
The silly plot centers around a government agency identifying Dogpatch as the most useless community in America. They have chosen this place to serve as ground zero for A-bomb testing. Them's fighting words for the citizenry, and they rise up to defend their town amidst bouncy songs and rollicking dance numbers. Gene de Paul's catchy music and Johnny Mercer's lyrics are upbeat 1950s pop with a sprinkling of country hoedown tunes.
Jason Winfield (Joe Cable in Willows South Pacific) is perfect as the hillbilly hunky Abner. His baritone is as strong as his physique. His expressions are really wonderful, especially when he does not know what is going on around him. Elizabeth Earnheart (returning to the Bay area from New York and in the Repertory Theatre at Sea) is a breezy delight as Daisy Mae and has nice vocal chops in her duet with Jason, "Namely You." Libby Trull (The Golden Apple, The Women) is the irascible Mammy Yokum while Michael Astin (Minnie Boys, Insignificant Others) energetically portrays Pappy Yokum.
Other standouts are Matthew Brandon Hutchens, who is wonderfully fluid as Evil Eye Fleagle. He reminds me of Al Nesor in the Paramount film. Doug Santana (Lyle Lyle Crocodile) is delightfully versatile as Marryin' Sam. Katya Smirnoff-Skyy (Jason Winfield) is seductive as Stupefyin' Jones, and Michael Patrick Gaffney is very good as the pompous General Bullmoose. Nina Josephs (Miss Liberty, Once Upon a Mattress) is avaricious as Appassionata Von Climax. Tom Orr (Mack & Mabel, Naked Boys Singing) is first rate as the inflated blowhard Senator Phogbound and sings the dated number, "Progress is the Root of All Evil." Both Benjamin Pither as Available Jones and Brian M. Rosen as Earthquake McGoon give good account of themselves in the roles.
Li'l Abner's supporting singers and dancers include Gemma Barozzi, Fiona Cheung, Molly Anne Coogan, Meghann May and Tony Panighetti and are great in both the dancing and singing departments.
Musical Director and pianist Dave Dobrusky breathes life into the Gene de Paul/Johnny Mercer score. Louise Jarmilowicz has devised perfect Dogpatch outfits for the cast. Tom Segal's choreography evokes the vigorous brawniness that originated with Michael Kidd in the Broadway production.
Li'l Abner plays at the Eureka Theatre, Jackson Street in the Golden Gate Center, San Francisco through August 13th. For tickets please call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.
Their next production will be George Gershwin's 1933 musical Pardon My English, which opens on October 19 and runs through November 5th.