They don’t write shows like Li’l Abner anymore, and not just because the 1956 musical adaptation of the Al Capp comic strip pretty much defines political incorrectness. With its Original Broadway Cast of fifty-four, only schools and community playhouses could possibly hope to produce this musical behemoth in 2016—which makes it a perfect choice for the theatrical genre known as the Concert Staged Reading, proof positive of which was evidenced at Musical Theatre West’s Daisy Maezing one-night-only Reiner Reading Series latest.
1956 being the height of the U.S./Soviet Arms Race, the United States Government has selected Dogpatch U.S.A. as the nation’s most unnecessary town and plans to nuke it to smithereens.
Local residents scramble to find something even the slightest bit necessary about their beloved Dogpatch, birthplace of Jubilation T. Cornpone, the absolute worst Confederate General ever, but their efforts make one thing perfectly clear.
Uncle Sam has got it right. There’s nothing at all worth saving in Dogpatch, U.S.A.
Still, despite impending doom, marriage-minded town lovely Daisy Mae (Madison Claire Parks) isn’t about to give up on convincing sweet-but-dumb hunk Li’l Abner (Tyler Matthew Burk) that there’s more to life than goin’ fishin’ with his buds.
Admittedly, that’s not all the plot there is in Norman Panama and Melvin Frank’s Li’l Abner, but it was surely not for plot that Broadway audiences kept lining up for nearly 700 performances.
Rather it was the townful of colorful bumpkins that made Capp’s comic a newspaper must-read for over forty years, that and some of the ‘50s catchiest songs (music by Gene De Paul, lyrics by Johnny Mercer), including the four-part harmonies of “If I Had My Druthers,” the romantic joys of “Namely You,” the infectious delights of “The Country’s In The Very Best Of Hands,” the conga syncopation of the very politically incorrect “Oh Happy Day,” the rousing rhythms of “Put ‘Em Back,” and infectious dance beats of “Matrimonial Stomp.”
Times may have changed in the sixty years since Li’l Abner ended its 693 performances on Broadway in 1958, but as evidenced on the stage of Cal State Long Beach’s University Theatre, the musical itself remains as enjoyable and, yes, politically savvy as it was six decades ago.
Leave it to director-choreographer Daniel Smith to prove once again that there is no one better in town to do said double-duty (and work theatrical miracles in a couple dozen hours of rehearsal).
Directorially, Smith cuts cast size in half, which not only makes his Abner more manageable, it allows triple-threat ensemble sensations Oliver Almonte, Brittany Bentley, Cedric Dodd, Zachary Ford, Marc Ginsburg, Jorie Janeway, Jordan Lamoureux, Kristin Morris, Isabella Olivas, Steven Rada, Ashley Marie Samudio, and Jennifer Strattan to wear multiple hats (and wigs, and beards), transforming themselves in an instant from Dogpatch hicks like Lonesome Polecat, Hairless Joe, and Moonbeam McSwine to government bigwigs-and-underlings and back again.
As for Smith’s choreography, production numbers like “Rag Offen The Bush,” “The Matrimonial Stomp,” and above all the seven-minute show-stopper that is the “Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet” not only give the above performers one heck of a workout; in complexity and polish they are what you’d expect to see after weeks of rehearsal, not mere hours.
Lead performances sparkle throughout, from Burk’s irresistible Abner (the biggest and best yet from the velvet-voiced charmer) to Parks’ scrumdiddlyumptious Daisy Mae (the luscious lovely brought to vivacious life with a soprano the likes of which we haven’t heard since the Fantasticks Off-Broadway star made NYC her home).
Scott Harlan gives Stubby Kaye a run for his money as a marvelously magnetic Marrying Sam, turning “Jubilation T. Cornpone” and “The Matrimonial Stomp” into two of the evening’s biggest applause-getters.
Tracy Rowe Mutz’s irrepressibly feisty Mammy Yokum, Robert Towers’ hilariously put-upon Pappy Yokum, Pablo Rossil’s magnificently mountainous Earthquake McGoon, Marisa Field’s stupefyingly vavavoomy Stupefyin’ Jones, and Marc Montminy’s fabulously folksy Mayor Dan’l Dawgmeet each has his or her scene-stealing moments, none more larcenous than Spencer Rowe’s blink-of-an-eye transformation from Available Jones to a wonderfully wacky Evil Eye Fleagle.
Meanwhile up in Washington there’s Tom Shelton’s famously full-of-himself General Bullmoose (“What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the U.S.A.”) and Ashley Fox Linton’s sultry sizzler of a dumb blonde Appasionata Von Climax, along with the diabolical duo of Senator Jack S. (“There’s no Jack S. like our Jack S.) Phogbound and Dr. Rasmussen T. Finsdale (Bryan Dobson and Randy Brenner, both terrific).
Add to the above David Lamoureux’s expert musical direction and a sensational Broadway-scale/caliber orchestra courtesy of the Los Angeles Musicians Collective and Li’l Abner ends up one of the Reiner Reading Series’ best, which is saying something indeed.
Hannah Simmons is associate choreographer. Sound is provided by Julie Ferrin/Sound Advice, LLC. Noelle Sammour is sound engineer and Benjamin Karasik is consulting technical director. Mary Ritenhour is production manager.
University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach
August 28, 2016