There's a lot of kickapoo joy juice being slurped by the good and goofy citizens of Dogpatch in Goodspeed Musicals' revival of "Li'l Abner." But even cartoon characters with a diminishing fan base should be shown some respect. This production pushes the idiot quotient to new levels and overwhelms the piece's playful political commentary.
There’s a lot of kickapoo joy juice being slurped by the good and goofy citizens of Dogpatch in Goodspeed Musicals’ revival of “Li’l Abner.” Most of the time, it’s too much tonic. True, the musical comedy is based on Al Capp’s broadly drawn, sharply conceived, hillbilly-set comicstrip, which was at its peak in the 1940s and ’50s. But even cartoon characters with a diminishing fan base should be shown some respect. This production, helmed with ever-increasing doses of exaggeration by Scott Schwartz, pushes the idiot quotient to new levels and overwhelms the piece’s playful political commentary. So it’s nix for these hicks in these sticks.
Although the 50-year-old Broadway hit has been a regular at schools and summer camps, it has not received a major revival in years, save for an Encores! presentation a few seasons back.
But the funny papers can be serious business, and it’s not an easy exercise to make two-dimensional characters come alive. In this case, just the right amount of Yokum hokum is needed to make it all work, combined with the perfectly proportioned mix of the sweet with the silly, the satirical with the sincere.
Schwartz and company have updated the musical to the present while keeping Dogpatch in its own eternal land of Brigadumb. It’s not a bad idea, given that there are perennial themes — not to mention some dandy Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul songs — about political corruption, scientific exploitation, corporate greed and nuclear worries that fit into today’s social zeitgeist. (Combined with the recent “Of Thee I Sing!” presentation at Encores!, it shows we may have to dig deep into the decades to find musicals with any political punch.)
Given the less-than-sacrosanct book, new references to Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, Al Sharpton, Jack Abramoff and Zoloft have been added for harmless, albeit strained, sport. And having the villainous General Bullmoose played by an actor who’s a snarling double of Dick Cheney (the wonderfully sly William McCauley) is an irresistible touch that gets an unnerving gasp from the aud. But if you’re going to bring the show to the present, you’d better forget some of the past references and iconography, including a scene with a President Eisenhower puppet.
The show begins promisingly with the characters stepping out of David Gallo’s black-and-white comicstrip panels to introduce themselves in the scene-setting “A Typical Day,” one of many Mercer-de Paul gems in a tuneful, bright score that includes such songs as “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands,” “If I Had My Druthers” and “Namely You.”
Some of the perfs wonderfully embody Capp’s colorful creations, especially Andrea Wolff and John Shuman as Mammy and Pappy Yokum and the 6-foot-5 Glenn Lawrence as their son, Li’l Abner. Lawrence has a solid baritone that evokes the clarity and quality of Peter Palmer, the original man-child lug. Lawrence also has an endearing guilelessness so essential in centering the nuttiness of the goings-on around him, though even he pushes too hard in playing wide-eyed and innocent.
Trent Armand Kendall brings a nice bit of gospel swing to the songs of Marryin’ Sam; Christopher Windom has some slick fun as Evil Eye Fleagle; and Curt Buckler has some fine moments as the hillbully Earthquake McGoon.
Others, however, exaggerate the characters to the breaking point. Christeena Michelle Riggs’ Daisy Mae is not the simple and self-possessed sweetheart of Li’l Abner but a figure of disturbing neuroses. Instead of being a breezy delight, “I’m Past My Prime” is a desperate call for help. Larry Daggett’s flamboyantly mad scientist is better suited to a Charles Ludlam spoof, more low camp than high Capp.
Patti Colombo’s choreography evokes the energetic muscularity that originated with Michael Kidd. But with Goodspeed’s small stage, even the ever-inventive Colombo is limited, and the Sadie Hawkins Day Race is a claustrophobic sprint.
Michael O’Flaherty gets the maximum sound from the tight, terrific eight-piece band. Michael Krass’ costumes seem adapted from an Old Navy outlet rather than taken from the funnies.