Also see Sharon's review of Black Rider
At intermission at MTG's opening night performance of Li'l Abner, there were many people talking fondly of the memories this show brought back. Unfortunately, for audience members with no prior experience with the show, the production offers little more than an opportunity to put a check-mark next to Li'l Abner on their lists of shows seen.
The musical - a 1956 adaptation of Al Capp's comic strip - is pretty much what you'd expect: a silly script (book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank) following the denizens of Dogpatch through various twists and turns, punctuated by quite a few musical numbers (generally upbeat music with a touch of twang by Gene De Paul; witty lyrics by Johnny Mercer). There's no depth to it, no moral to the story (other than a vague message about being true to yourself), no dramatic tension, and no real surprises - you're basically watching a comic strip come to life.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a good old-fashioned piece of fluff (although modern audiences might be a little put off by all the "hillbilly speak" - just check your political correctness at the door). But if a show like this is going to succeed, you need a production that bursts off the stage with energy and warmth. And MTG's concert production - perhaps because it is a concert production - rarely manages the feat.
At the center are Damon Kirsche as the simple but well-meaning Abner, and Melissa Fahn as his marriage-minded girlfriend Daisy Mae. Both Kirsche and Fahn have failed to find a way to integrate their songs into their performances. Kirsche delivers his spoken lines with an "Aw shucks" sort of charm, but when he sings, he faces the audience, a spotlight comes on, and a beautiful, powerful, elegant voice comes out of him - Li'l Abner has temporarily been replaced by Damon Kirsche, Leading Man. Fahn occasionally carries some of Daisy Mae's kittenishness into her singing, but she, too, is guilty of performing her songs as though they were standing alone in a concert, rather than as part of a musical.
Most of the supporting characters are written as one-note caricatures. Some of the performers - such as Danny Stiles as Evil Eye Fleagle, or even Eydie Alyson as the bowl-legged, pipe-smoking Mammy Yokum - got laughs from only isolated pockets of the audience. It seemed as though family and friends found it humorous to see them in their ridiculous get-ups, but the performers failed to find anything in the characters that actually played funny.
Happily, others connected. Joe Hart got past the ridiculousness of Marryin' Sam's multi-colored suit, all the way to the smooth-talkin' fast-seller within. And when he starts singing the rousing tribute to Dogpatch's founder, "Jubilation T. Cornpone," he brings the material to life, providing the first moment in the show where you genuinely think there's a reason to see Li'l Abner beyond being able to say that you did. Michael Kostroff has similar success with General Bullmoose, nearly bringing down the house with his understated delivery of "Progress is the Root of All Evil." And Cynthia Ferrer proves that even a one-joke character, the disinterested society dame Apassionata Von Climax, can be memorable if that joke is played to the hilt.
The stand-out performances of a few cast members give enough of a glimpse into what a knockout production of Li'l Abner might look like - a goofy little diversion with a bit of heart. But, as a whole, MTG's concert production doesn't quite succeed.
Li'l Abner plays at April 30 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and May 8 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach. For information, see www.musicaltheatreguild.com.
The Musical Theatre Guild's Broadway in Concert series presents Li'l Abner. Book by Norman Panama & Melvin Frank; Music by Gene De Paul; Lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Based on characters created by Al Capp. Originally directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd. Director Roger Castellano; Musical Director Dennis Castellano; Assistant Choreographer Kym Andrews; MTG Producers Richard Israel and Roy Leake, Jr. Wardrobe Designer Shon LeBlanc, Valentino Costumes; Production Stage Manager Art Brickman; Asst. Stage Managers Jessica Lester & Alexandra Nadjarian.