I’ve written in the past about how much I enjoy finally putting a story to music — that is, finally seeing the book on stage for a musical that I’ve only know through the cast album. This is a special treat when that music is one that is held in high esteem, but is very very rarely done. So when I received an announcement that the Theatre Academy at Los Angeles City College was doing a production of the rarely performed “Li’l Abner” — and that even better, it was being directed by well-known director and producer Bruce Kimmel (FB) [the man behind numerous albums and "The Brain from Planet X"] and choreographed by Kay Cole [a well-known LA choreographer] — I knew I just had to get tickets. Further, as my ticket date grew closer, others I respect with knowledge of the property were effusively praising it. So guess where we were last night? That’s right: the Caminito Theatre on the ground of LACC, seeing the final (sold-out) performance of “Li’l Abner“.
So what — or more precisely, who — is Li’l Abner? Most yunguns today will have no clue. As Wikipedia describes it, “Li’l Abner is a satirical American comic strip that appeared in many newspapers in the United States, Canada and Europe, featuring a fictional clan of hillbillies in the impoverished mountain village of Dogpatch, Arkansas. Written and drawn by Al Capp (1909–1979), the strip ran for 43 years, from August 13, 1934 through November 13, 1977.” In its day, it was one of the most popular strips around — many expressions entered the vernacular from the strip (such as “Schmoo” and the notion of “Sadie Hawkins Day”). The musical was an attempt to put the comic strip on the stage — with a comic strip sensibility — preserving all of the major and popular characters including Abner, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Daisy Mae, Marryin’ Sam, Earthquake McGoon, and Moonbeam McSwine.
So what is the story in Li’l Abner? Does it matter? Seriously, the main line of the story (book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank) concerned the eternal storyline of Li’l Abner: Daisy Mae wanting to catch Li’l Abner during the Sadie Hawkins Day race so that she could marry him. But to paraphrase Teenagers from Outer Space, marriage isn’t funny — frustration is. In this case, the frustration comes from the impediments put in the ways of the nuptuals. The first is Abner’s total lack of interest in sex. The second was created by Senator Jack S. Phogbound, who has Dogpatch declared the most unnecessary place in America — meaning that the testing of the Atomic Bomb can move from the desert near Las Vegas to Dogpatch — and that all the inhabitants of Dogpatch must move away… two days before the Sadie Hawkins run. This leads to the third complication, Earthquake McGoon, who declares that since there won’t be any more Sadie Hawkins’ runs, the “law of the hills” applies — and he has obtained approval from Daisy’s kin to marry Daisy (which suddenly arouses Abner’s interest). The final complication occurs when the town finds something necessary to save it — Yokumberry Juice, which turns hillbillies into muscular hunks instantly — and thus become a secret weapon for the US, who experiment with it on all the husbands in Dogpatch. Abner owns the formula for the Juice, and decides to give it to the US Government for free (because he is a true-blooded American); this pisses off General Bullmoose, who wants the formula for himself so he can sell it to the government and make all the money in the world. He concocts a plan, with the aid of Evil Eye Fleagle, to permit Bullmoose’s mistress, Appassionata Von Climax, to capture Abner during the Sadie Hawkins race before Daisy Mae; Von Climax will then marry Abner, get the formula through community property, and then Abner will meet a tragic death. Throw into this mix Available Jones and his secret weapon — Stupefyin’ Jone — who stops any man in his tracks; a bevy of beautiful mountain galls (who want to catch the men); a passle of hillbilly men (who don’t want to be caught)… and a preacher (Marryin’ Sam) who wants to marry them all. Overall, it is an entertaining silly mess, filled with mangled language, political satire that is as valid today as it was in 1956 when the show was written, and wonderful, wonderful music (music by Gene De Paul and lyrics by Johnny Mercer).
So if this show is so good, why is it so rarely done? The musical itself, when originally staged, had an extremely large cast (54 people, with an orchestra of 25, running 2½ hours); this has tended to hinder regional productions. I’ve heard tell of rights problems as well, especially with the film musical version. The complexity and nature of the story make it difficult to pull off just right, and casting can be a bear. The main reason is likely that few people today are as familiar with the property as they were in the 1950s, and it just wouldn’t draw the audience. So if you get a chance to see a good production, go see it (alas, this production closed last night, although hopefully it might reappear somewhere else).
So what made this production so good. An excellent cast (more on that in a paragraph or so) was aided and abetted with great direction and story editing by Bruce Kimmel (FB) — this cut out some of the problematic parts of the story (including the song “O Happy Day”) — and amplified with a simplified country band (under the direction of Wayne Moore (FB)) and new orchestrations (by David Siegel). Add in new choreography by Kay Cole to fit the simple LACC stage, and you had a wonder of a show.
The cast, which was a mixture of professionals and college students, was excellent. In the lead positions were Evan Harris (FB) as Li’l Abner and Maddison Claire Parks (FB) as Daisy Mae. Harris’ Abner captured both the hunkiness and clueless naivete of the character, while having a lovely singing voice that shone during both his solo numbers (“If I Had My Druthers”) as well as his duets with Daisy Mae. Parks had the looks down pat for Daisy Mae and acted the character wonderfully. Her voice was delightful, but it wasn’t the typical musical-theatre actress voice — it kept making me think more of musical theatre actresses of the 1950s (in particular, there was a Helen Trauble-ness in voice that made it seem little operatic). This was a nice change of pace, but the voice could use just a smidge more power (which was only an issue because there was no amplification here). Basically, the two were great in their roles, and brought a lot of enthusiasm and talent to the positions. I’ll note that Harris’ webpage indicates he will be starting as Ash in the Reno production of “Evil Dead — The Musical“; his hunky good looks and wonderful voice should make that a very good production.
In the secondary lead positions were John Massey (FB-Fan, FB-Person) as Marryin’ Sam and Barry Pearl as General Bullmoose. Massey’s Sam was spectacular — a lot of energy, humor, and channeling of Stubby Kaye made Massey a delight to watch. He was just having a lot of fun with the character. To top it off, he had a very strong singing voice and handled Sam’s numbers (of which there were a lot — the music was seemingly written to emphasize the talents of Stubby Kaye — the original Sam) very well. This was particularly seen in numbers such as “Jubilation T. Cornpone”, “The Country’s In The Very Best of Hands”, and “The Matrimonial Stomp” (but he handled the tender numbers, such as “I’m Past My Prime”, equally well). Pearl’s Bullmoose was appropriately bombastic and handled his singing well (particularly in his spotlight number, “Progress is the Root of All Evil”).
If I had one quibble, it would be that I had no idea he was a general except for the name — costuming him early on in a general’s uniform would have helped quite a bit. [ETA: The director clarified in a note to me that my comment on the uniform was misunderstanding the character. He noted that "General Bullmoose is a General in name only, hence the line that precedes his first scene "Private industry is up in arms." He is not a member of the services or the government, which is the point of his character -- it's all about him -- he has more money than the government but wants even more from the Yokumberry tonic. Putting him in a General's outfit would, in fact, be completely wrong for the character - and the character has never been in such an outfit in any version of the show - always in suits." As such, I guess, he joins the ranks of General Electric and General Mills (and perhaps even Captain Crunch :-))]
In terms of the supporting players, all were excellent. I’d like to highlight a few performances before going on to list everyone. As Mammy Yokum, Maureen McFadden (FB) played old and crotchety well. The role was originally played by Charlotte Rae, followed by Billie Hayes, so you can get an idea of the shoes she had to fill. She filled them will, embodying the role with wonderful humor and performance. As Zsa Zsa/Wife, Sami Staitman (FB) was surprising, especially when you consider that, according to her bio, she’s only 14. She’s the first character you see during the overture and entre’acte, and she plays one of the mountain gals in the show — she sings strong in the ensemble and just radiated a wonderful humor about her. As Earthquake McGoon, Kristian Rasmussen/FB had the voice and appropriate mannerisms for a McGoon, but didn’t quite have the size to convey the Earthquake aspect. Luckily, his performance made up for that! Riley Dandy/FB‘s Appassionata Von Climax (a role originally performed by Tina Louise of Gilligan’s Island fame) came across as appropriately sexy and calculating. Emily Barnett/FB‘s Moonbeam McSwine was fun to watch; I especially enjoyed her interactions with her porcine puppet (and if this is the same Emily Barnett who was mentioned in this article, a double cheer for coming back so strong). Lastly, I want to mention Moira McFadden (FB)’s Evil Eye Fleagle. When she came on stage, I realized that this was a woman playing what seemed to be a male role — and playing it with quite good humorous program. What I didn’t realize until looking at the program afterwards was that she is the twin of the actor playing Mammy Yokem. Totally different characters, well portrayed by two sisters who have gone into the same field. P.S.: The musical director, Wayne Moore (FB), was a hoot when he got out from behind the piano as a government man.
Rounding out the name characters were: Sean Howard (Mayor Dan’l Dawgmeat), Alvaro Ramirez/FB (Senator Jack S. Phogbound), Stayton Danylowich/FB (Available Jones), Anna Gion/FB (an appropriately statuesque and stunning Stupefyin’ Jones/Secretary), Ryan Connolly/FB (an appropriately scratchin’ Romeo Scraggs), Anthony Taylor/FB (Dr. Rasmussen T. Finsdale), and Daniel Cruz Palma/FB (Hairless Joe). The ensemble consisted of Ali Ahmad/FB, Jessica Atkinson/FB, Christelle Baguidy (FB), Alaric Cantarero/FB, Iesha Coston (G+), Daniel Cruz Palma/FB, Adriana Diaz/FB, Gabrielle Duguay/FB, Stephanie Hernandez/FB, Martel Huggins, Unique Jenkins (FB), Emma Klages/FB, Moira McFadden (FB), Caroline Muniak (FB), Georgina Navarro/FB, Laura Sammons/FB, and Diego Sotelo/FB. I should note that all the gals in the ensemble were clearly beautiful beneath their hillybilly makeup; as for the guys, well, that yokumberry juice cleaned them up nicely (based on the reactions of the ladies in the audience).
As noted earlier, Wayne Moore (FB) led “The Kickapoo Five”, a jug-ish band consisting of Moore (FB) on piano, Steve Bringelson on Bass, Ron Hershewe on Guitar and Banjo, Dan Weinstein on Fiddle, and Edward Smith/FB on Drums, Pail, and Washboard. The band was a hoot, especially Moore at the end of each “What’s Good for General Bullmoose”.
Turning to the technical… The set design by Tesshi Nakagawa was appropriately cartoonish — primarily flats accented with Al Capp-ish drawings. It worked well and demonstrated that you don’t need fancy sets with you have great performances. The sound design by Vern Yonemura was appropriately transparent (and was presumably mostly sound effects). The lighting design by James Moody worked well, and was even more astounding when you realized the lighting booth was on the side and all spotlights were thus done with moving mirrors. The costumes design by Roxanne De Ment/FB and Natalya Shahinyan/FB was appropriately cartoonish and hillbilly
; my only quibble (as noted above) was the lack of a uniform for General Bullmoose. Victoria Elizabeth Chediak/FB was the Production Stage Manager, assisted by Carla Ornelas/FB. Other students served as crew members, ushers, etc.
Unfortunately, the last performance of “Li’l Abner” at LA City College was the one we saw (and it was sold out). Hopefully they will remount it somewhere else — keep your eyes open.
[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I've been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I've been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I'm a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]
Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: The last weekend of May brings an offbeat parody musical: “Zombies from the Beyond” at the Lex Theatre. June is also busy. It starts with a CDF Conference for Karen while I see “The Fantastiks” at Good People Theatre (FB). We lose the following weekend to a Bat Mitzvah. The remainder of the month brings “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton” at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on June 22, and “I’m Not Just a Comic Genius” at Secret Rose (FB) on June 27. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. August then remains quiet as we work around vacations and such, but things start to get busy again in September and October. More on that later. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.