Musical numbers: “Come On In,” “My Fine Golden Boy,” “Children’s Taunt,” “Different.” “Bury Him Here,” “Different” (reprise), “When You Hold Your Husband’s Hand,” “Big White House,” “Knock, Knock,” “Waltzing Tonight Together,” “Come On Dance,” “Takin’ Care,” “Gravy Train,” “A Divine Decree,” “The Telegram, ” “Spittin’ Image,” “Takin’ Care” (reprise).
An infections and melodic score, fused with some rowdy knee-slapping country dancing, dominates this rural tale of a Kentucky clan. Spirited and energetic, the musical is thickly sugar-coated but lacking in humor.
The book focuses on an uneducated 12-year-old boy with a thirst for knowledge who’s denied proper schooling by a backwoods grandfather who offers little more than dated adages and fishing-pole philosophy. Spanning four generations, a subplot introduces an arrogant, wealthy lad of the ’80s whose father is neglectful and whose education is encouraged by his grandfather, a successful author of autobiographical folklore.
The score, with music by Stephen A. Weiner and lyrics by Laura Szabo-Cohen, is neatly balanced between hoedown hominess and plaintive expressions of yearning. A rousing opener by the gathering kinsfolk, “Come On In,” quickly prepares the audience for frequent foot-tapping, and a war widow (Janine LaManna) reluctant to marry a bumpkin of a brother-in-law renders a sweetly reflective “When You Hold Your Husband’s Hand.” “Bury Him Here” is another spunky celebration, as the clan irreverently picnics following the burial of a ne’er-do-well G.I. who is ultimately revealed to have been a war hero.
The impoverished family splurges with a government check and moves into a swanky mansion, only to be evicted when visiting relatives come to squat and destroy the property. It makes for a jubilant first-act finale.
Ramzi Khalaf is exceptionally winning as the boy from a misty mountain hollow who is taught to waltz and read Dickens by a charitable neighbor (Eden Riegel). “Waltzing Tonight Together” expresses an enchanting bond of friendship. Grandpa is acted with lackadaisical Pa Kettle stupidity and well-intended stubbornness by Leonard Drum. The character, likable at the outset, becomes increasingly intolerable.
Perry Arthur Kroeger’s simple and spacious set uses little more than crates to change locales on a raked double platform, accented by an imposing tree and the storyteller’s library. An onstage orchestra pit is occasionally distracting.
“Spittin’ Image,” directed by Peter J. Loewy, has more than enough charm and melodic fervor to find an afterlife. Some pruning, spit and polish on the Karin Kasdin’s book is in order, and a dose of wit beyond the toothy grins of mountain folk would also be most welcome.