Musical numbers: “Way Down Yonder,” “Why Pass Bypass By?,” “Fatherless,” “Mine,” “Story Song,” “The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways,” “Live at Lunch,” “I Play It by Ear,” “Duet for One,” “Jesus Was Not an Alien,” “City on the Hill,” “Kudzu,” “Hey, Earl,” “Air Nasal,” “No More Sauce,” “Home,” “Karaoke Saturday Night,” “Letter from a Faraway Place,” “Master Plan,” “We’re Your Mamas,” “Check It Out,” “National Recognition.”
The quirky denizens of the comic strip “Kudzu” are brought to life in this new musical by Ford’s Theater by way of the Goodspeed Opera House. There are some serious shortcomings, but it’s sturdy enough to pack in the D.C. tourists for an open-ended run while the kinks are addressed. There is touring potential.
For starters, this is not Dogpatch. The wry social commentary and lovable characters that spawned the popular musical and film from Al Capp’s L’il Abner strip don’t reside in Bypass, the fictional Southern town noted for the creeping vine of the title.
Nothing much happens there except some very low-brow proceedings orchestrated by folks who cling to unflattering stereotypes like, well, kudzu. They include a self-absorbed cheerleader, an unholy preacher, a conniving industrialist and the strip’s dim-witted title character, a budding journalist who earnestly tries to make sense of it all.
A thin plot about a scheme to purchase the town’s most prizeworthy real estate plays second fiddle to music written and performed by the Red Clay Ramblers, a North Carolina string band. The group’s infectious blend of mountain music, bluegrass, Cajun, rap and other styles is on display in the musical’s lively and varied score. Highlights include the rousing chorus opener, “Why Pass Bypass By,” and “Hey Earl,” a tender solo from one of the cast’s strongest voices. Some equally forgettable tunes are also in the mix, including act two’s clumsy opener.
The band is parked center stage most of the time, with members relinquishing their instruments for acting roles. The show could be dramatically improved by attention to chronically awkward pacing and some abrupt transitions between song and story. Some effort to elevate the banal script might also help.
The Ford’s company is uneven. The vocal talents of Joliet Harris highlight her supporting role, but Beth Leavel and Roger Howell are miscast. James Ludwig gamely tackles the lead role and carries it nicely despite the lame material.