Thursday, May 29, 2008

'Li'l Abner' brings hillbilly hijinks to the Eastern Slope Playhouse

Hillbilly hijinks meet political satire in Arts In Motion’s lively, if flawed, production of “Li’l Abner,” which continues its run at the Eastern Slope Playhouse May 30-31 at 7:30 p.m.

First produced in 1956 and based on the classic Al Capp’s comic strip, “Li'l Abner” focuses on the small southern town of Dogpatch. The town is preparing for the annual Sadie Hawkins race, with the unmarried women chasing down their soon-to-be husbands. Daisy-Mae (Nora Cronin) has been pursuing Li’l Abner Yokum (Robert Crowson) for years to no avail.

Their world gets turned upside down when it is determined that Dogpatch is the most unnecessary town in the United States, and therefore a perfect candidate for nuclear testing. Everyone is to be evacuated unless the town can prove they are necessary.

The solution is Yokumberry Tonic, which has the ability to make any man strong and handsome. Li’l Abner wants to give it to the government, but the crooked General Bullmoose (Ralph Morse) and his cohorts, Evil-Eye Fleagle (Frank Smith) and Appassionata Von Climax (Emily Holden) want it for their own designs.

The show cleverly uses the guise of lowbrow, hillbilly humor to lampoon the government. Songs likes “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” and “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” which sings the praises of a cowardly, incompetent Confederate hero, are sharply written with lyrics that are still relevant over 50 years later.

The show loses some of its edge by adding references to Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush and others in an ill-advised attempt to make the production topical and more appealing to a modern audience. By clearly positioning the production as being set in 2008, the satire of the show is undermined.

When the play is set in the 1950s the nuclear testing premise is pointed satire, but the same premise doesn’t make sense when updated today. This production should’ve done a complete update or left the show in the 1950s. By only going half way you are left with an anachronistic mess.

That problem aside, there are still pleasures to be had in the production. The large cast is good even when the material lets them down. Cronin, a junior at Kennett High School, has a pleasantly sweet singing voice and a cheery disposition as Daisy-Mae. She is good on “Namely You,” a cute ballad with Crowson and even better in the cheeky “I’m Past My Prime,” a song about being over-the-hill at 17.

Crowson, a senior at Fryeburg Academy, is effective as the dim but earnest title character. For much of the musical, Crowson is required to be a straight man to the antics that surround him, and he fills that role ably, allowing the supporting cast to shine.

Beth Funicella and Rob Owen as Mammy and Pappy Yokum give fine, broad comedic performances, but it is Smith and Holden who are the real show stealers. Smith in his bright green zoot suit is a hoot as Evil-Eye Fleagle. Holden, a senior at Fryeburg Academy, blends nice comic timing with a powerhouse voice to make Appassionata a memorably sassy femme fatale.
The brightly colored and cartoonish-looking sets and equally bright costumes are appropriate for a show based on a comic strip.

The show doesn’t get much beyond the level of a high school production, and part of that could simply be that much of the cast members are high school and middle school students. It does work on that modest level, and if you go in expecting that caliber of work then a decent night of theater can be had.

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