Ignorant rubes in hick towns seem to be endlessly amusing to us city folk, and that’s what drove Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip to unprecedented success: 43 years in syndication. About 20 years after it began, the strip was turned into a Broadway musical that opened in 1956, and ran for almost 700 performances.
Now, Mercury Summer Stock is presenting Li’l Abner in all its cartoonish glory, and the production is a sublime example of how to turn over-the-top characters into a fast and funny theatrical romp. Even though the singing voices in the leads vary in quality from good to somewhat challenged, Pierre Brault’s energetic and witty direction and choreography keep the play as intoxicating as a jug of Kickapoo Joy Juice.
The shit-kickers who reside in Dogpatch, Kentucky are all a few DNA strands short of functional, but they are possessed of an inherent honesty and goodness (at least, in Al Capp’s world). In the book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, these yokels are being evacuated by the US Guv’ment since their burg has been confiscated, identified as the least necessary place in the country and a likely target for atom bomb tests.
As the residents deal with that threat (or is it a compliment?), local hunk Abner is being pursued by the luscious Daisy Mae, a process overseen by Abner’s dotingly dense parents Mammy and Pappy Yokum. Meanwhile, Mammy’s secret elixir, which turns an ordinary man into an Adonis, is fought over by a government scientist (Ryan Bergeron in a fright wig) and the evil corporate titan General Bullmoose (a blustering James Mango).
Not since Dickens has any writer come up with more telling names for his characters, and this musical has them in spades—from Senator Jack S. Phogbound (run the first name and middle initial together when you say it) to Earthquake McGoon (a doltish Daisy Mae suitor), and from Evil Eye Fleagle to Appasionata von Climax (no descriptions necessary).
Although Abner’s supposed to be as dumb as a wet log, Jason Leupold plays him as a slightly distracted frat boy. But he sings well and has the physique to carry off the part. As Daisy Mae, Annie Hickey is plenty attractive and handles her musical chores with style. Though there could be more confused sexual chemistry between the two, you still root for their eventual bonding.
Much of the production’s entertainment value comes from Mammy and Pappy, who are played with exuberant foolishness by Kelvette Beacham and Brian Marshall. Beacham is far from the short and scrawny Mammy of the strip, but she swings her weight like a sledgehammer as she whips her family into line. And Marshall, constantly bent at the waist, motors around the stage like the Energizer bunny on crack.
In the central role of Marryin’ Sam, the preacher who deals in $2 weddings, Dan DiCello nails a number of laugh lines. And he leads the company in a rousing anthem to the incompetence of town founder, “Jubilation T. Cornpone.” But he struggles with some songs, particularly his duet with Daisy Mae, “I’m Past My Prime.”
A number of smaller roles sparkle, such as understudy Ryan Thompson as Eagle Eye Fleagle—pitter-pattering across the stage in a stoop-shouldered posture, he actually seems animated. Sarah Saddler is voluptuous as Appasionata, and Tim Allen masters a variety of comic strip stances as Available Jones. Indeed, the large cast is either quite good or exceptional from top to bottom.
Director Brault never lets the timing flag, which is critical in such a wildly exaggerated piece. And the production is augmented by Margaret Ruble’s costumes, a glorious mélange of hick chic.
If you’re longing for a funny evening that won’t tax your brain, take a slug of Li’l Abner and wait for the giggles to start.
Through July 24, produced by Mercury Summer Stock
at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,