It’s a typical day in Dogpatch, U.S.A.–typical, that is, until the U.S.
Government decides to bomb it to smithereens. Then, local residents scramble
to find something necessary about their beloved town, birthplace of the worst
Confederate General ever, Jubilation T. Cornpone.  Meanwhile, marriage-
minded cutiepie Daisy Mae keeps on trying to convince Li’l Abner that there’s
more to life than goin’ fishin’ with his buds. That’s the plot (what there is of it)
of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank’s Li’l Abner, based on Al Capp’s classic
comic strip of the same name.

Times have changed in the fifty years since Li’l Abner’s ended its 693
performances on Broadway in 1958, but the musical itself remains as enjoyable
and, yes, politically savvy (and incorrect) as it was half a century ago.

Following a fun though not completely successful updating of Damn Yankees
last Fall, the folks at Reprise! have made the smart decision to keep Li’l Abner
smack dab in the middle of the 1950s, all the while keeping it fresh with an
unexpected director, a whiz of a choreographer, a brand new musical
director, and an almost entirely Equity cast who truly capture the feeling of
the comic strip, and in many cases reinvent the familiar Capp creations.

The brilliant Michael Michetti is best known as a director of original dramatic
fare, such as the award-winning Pera Palas, Ouroboros, and A Picture Of
Dorian Gray. Even Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, though a musical, was
edgy and dramatic at heart.  Thus, it doubtless came as a surprise to many
(and perhaps even to Michetti himself) when he was assigned this very old-
fashioned musical comedy confection. Michetti’s approach seems to have
been to honor the material, all the while tightening the pace and
encouraging his cast to have fun with their wacky roles.

And what a cast it is!

Eric Martsolf and Brandi Burkhardt (both of daytime TV’s Passions) might at first
glance seem to have been cast for their looks, physiques, and soap opera fan
bases, yet each has an extensive musical theatrical background which shows
in their assured performances. I’d guess that there’s seldom been an Abner as
superbly muscled as Martsolf (nicely revealed in the fishing hole sequence), but
he’s a fine singer and actor who seems to be enjoying making gentle fun of his
soap star looks as the sweet but romantically-disinclined Abner. (Watch for
the moment when Abner gives Daisy a pat on the back instead of a caress.)
The charming Burkhardt also shines, especially vocally, revealing a lovely
soprano that would seem to make her a natural for other musical theater
classics.  She’s a sweet and spunky Daisy Mae and pretty as a picture.

The supporting cast gets the best roles, however, and do so well at them that
it would be impossible to select a “best” among the bunch. Top billed Cathy
Rigby is a cute and feisty Mammy Yokum, and with her Olympic gymnastic
talents, this is one Mammy who can get tossed around and turn somersaults
with the best of them. Sharing top billing is Fred Willard as General Bullmoose
(“What’s good for  General Bullmoose is good for the U.S.A.”) who puts his own
stamp on the role, bringing back fond memories of Fernwood Tonight and the
Christopher Guest oeuvre with his every word.

Michael Kostroff’s Marrying Sam is a cross between a Southern gentleman and
a good ol’ boy and can sell a song with the best of them, his “Jubilation T.
Cornpone” and “The Matrimonial Stomp” being show highlights. Likewise, Joel
Brooks’ General Jack S. (“There’s no Jack S. like our Jack S.) Phogbound
combines elements of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’s Big Daddy with the venerable
Colonel Sanders. Robert Towers is a delightfully put-upon Pappy Yokum, John
Ganun is as muscular as he is dumb as Earthquake McGoon, and Amir Talai’s
very funny Available Jones seems to be made of rubber. Jamie Luner is a
sensational Appasionata Von Climax, a squeaky-voiced Jersey Girl dressed up
in silks and furs and interjecting some very funny “Oh oh ohs.”  Gary Franco’s Evil
Eyed Fleagle looks and sounds like a Damon Runyon crap-shooter dressed in
leprechaun green, and Michael Lopez gets multiple laughs in his brief bits as
Senator Phogbound’s indescribable butler. Finally there is Larry Cedar’s
reinvention of dastardly scientist Dr. Finsdale, his every word accompanied by
an over-the-top gesticulation that should be captured on film for posterity. 
Completing the cast are Kim Arnett as Tobacco Rhoda, Louis Becker as Alf
Scragg, Seth Belliston as the policeman, Tanae Brooks as Stupefyin’ Jones,
Wilkie Ferguson as the government man, Ray Garcia as Clem Scraggs, Kimberly
Mikesell as Scarlett, Justin Robertson as Romeo Scragg, Leslie Stevens as
Moonbeam McSwine, and John Todd as Speedy McRabbit, all of them doing
smashing work as do ensemble members Zaylin Bescoby, Lauren Melendez,
Yusuf Nasar, and Debbie Zaltman. For fans of the muscular male physique,
there are also the three hunky Speedo-clad “after” husbands, Christian
Boeving, T.J. Hoban, and Jeff Soskin, with the latter deserving special mention
for giving his non-speaking role some extra pizzazz.

Ovation-winning choreographer Lee Martino returns for her third Reprise! show
in a row this season, and she and her troupe of dancers (the best in the area,
and the fastest studies around) have put together one energetic musical
number after another, including a bit of “hand jive” for “The Country’s In The
Very Best Of Hands” and the extended Act 1 finale “Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet,”
with its storytelling vignettes, which breaks the forth wall by having marriage-
minded racers running through the aisles while others do cartwheels across the

From the first notes of the overture, the audience knows it is in the very best of
hands with Darryl Archibald at the baton.  The big orchestra (hidden upstage
behind comic book bushes) makes the Johnny Mercer/Gene De Paul tunes
sound great, and a fantastic bunch of songs they are, including the four-part
harmonies of “If I Had My Druthers,” the romantic “Namely You,” the infectious
“The Country’s In The Very Best Of Hands,” the conga beats of the very
politically incorrect “Oh Happy Day,” the rousing “Put ‘Em Back,” and very
danceable “Matrimonial Stomp.” 

Bradley Kaye’s sets, Thomas G. Marquez’s costumes, and Tom and Donna
Ruzika’s lighting design capture the brilliant Technicolor comic book imagery of
Al Capp’s strip, with Philip G. Allen’s sound design at the same level.

True, there will be some in the audience who will resist the trip down memory
lane to Dogpatch and gripe that it’s not Sondheim, or even Rodgers and
Hammerstein. It’s their loss. Li’l Abner is a colorful, tuneful, laugh-filled couple
hours of aw shucks down home fun, and the cheers that followed virtually
every musical number would seem to indicate that most in the audience had
as great a time as I did.

UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. Through February 17.

–Steven Stanley
 February 6, 2008
 Photos: Michael Lamont

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