Sunday, February 21, 2016

Millbrook: "L'il Abner" (musical)

Al Capp's long running comic strip L'il Abner (1934-1777), featuring the rag-tag hillbillies of Dogpatch, "the most unnecessary place in the USA", first appeared as a Broadway musical in 1956, with book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and music and lyrics by Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer; a film version followed soon after in 1959. Long a staple of high school and community theatres, the Millbrook Community Players are currently mounting a production directed by A. John Collier.

With a compliment of 42 actors (several of whom play multiple parts, and including two last minute understudies taking on featured characters), numerous scene and costume changes, Sam Wallace's adept musical direction, simply staged choreography by Daniel Harms, and playing a featured role himself, Mr. Collier has a lot on his plate. -- Of course, "the show must go on", and though opening night was fraught with tentative dialogue, lengthy scene changes, slow lighting cues, and an over amplified piano that frequently drowned out the song lyrics, the Millbrook company delivered a pleasant two-hour and twenty minute entertainment.

L'il Abner is an old-fashioned musical with a script that comically stretches credibility, a mixed bag musical score, and some gentle but pointed satirical criticism of corporate influence on American politics and mistrust of the Federal government that remain true to Capp's intentions and speak eloquently to issues that glare at us in today's headlines.

While naive but good-natured muscle-man L'il Abner Yokum [Michael Armstrong] continues to evade and avoid the romantic yearnings of virtuous and voluptuous Daisy Mae Scraggs [Kaitlin LeMaster], and the nastiest local rube named Earthquake McGoon [John Collier] is determined to marry Daisy Mae as the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race approaches, and at which the women of the town who can catch their men are to be married by Marryin' Sam [Sam Wallace], there's another plot afoot: Senator Jack S. Fogbound [Eric Arvidson] and greedy capitalist General Bullmoose [John Chain] are determined to re-locate nuclear weapons experiments away from Las Vegas to Dogpatch, unless they can find something "necessary" about the place.

Comes Mammy Yokum [Grace Moore] to the rescue. Her "Yokumberry tonic" has sustained L'il Abner's physique for years, and could do the same for mankind; the catch is that the tonic virtually cancels out the libido, making them unresponsive to any romantic inclinations.

Dr. Finsdale [Vicki Moses] demands experiments that must test the tonic's effects before declaring is the "necessary" thing that will save the town. So, with a lot at stake, Fogbound and Bullmoose conscript an assortment of conspirators to wrest the formula from L'il Abner: Stupefyin' Jones [Emily Pose], whose mere presence stops men in their tracks, Appassionata Von Climax [Rae Ann Collier], a spoiled femme fatale who can entrap most any man by her looks, and Evil Eye Fleagle [Greg Fanning], who can freeze people in their tracks by putting his evil-eye "whammy" on them.

That's a lot of shenanigans to contend with, and needless to say, the town will be saved -- more from the ineptness of the participants than anything, much like the town hero, Jubilation T. Cornpone, whose incompetence in battle changed the course of the Civil War. When a letter from Abraham Lincoln is discovered declaring him a hero, the town rejoices.

Along the way, we are treated to a number of moments that stand out: rousing renditions of "Jubilation T. Cornpone" and "The Country's in the Very Best of Hands" showcase the company's strengths at satire, "If I Had My Druthers" and "You Can Tell When There's Love in a Home" are homespun declarations that most of us can relate to, the rendition of "I'm Past My Prime" shows how people young and old perceive their lot in life, and the romantic duet "Namely Me" by L'il Abner and Daisy Mae is a sweet reflection of youthful innocence.

Mr. Armstrong and Ms. LeMaster are good on the eyes and credibly indicate the innocence of youth, Ms. Collier and Ms. Pose are made to look their parts as seductive sirens but have little opportunity to capitalize on their attributes as their actions are glossed over too quickly (as are many of the moments in the dialogue that drive the script's satirical intentions), and the ultra modest costumes belie the physical allure that Daisy Mae and Appasionatta and Stupefyin' Jones are meant to have.

Mr. Wallace dominates the stage at every moment. His larger than life Marryin' Sam with full command of character, strong singing voice, and generosity in supporting his actor companions is a model the rest of the cast is fortunate to have in their company.