Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
In the 1950s, before most of us were aware of racism, sexism, ageism and insults to hill-billies, we all eagerly read the “Li’l Abner” comic strip. We faithfully followed the adventures of the Yokum family. We adored sweet little Pappy Yokum, feisty Mammy Yokum, and the luscious Daisy Mae. Most of all, we focused on that handsome hunk, Li’l Abner himself, as he dodged Daisy Mae’s determined pursuit through the hills of a mythical Appalachia.
When Al Capp’s “Li’L Abner” finally made its way from strip to stage in 1959, it lost much of its impact, at least for this aficionado. No matter that the musical’s book was faithful to the original stories of Dogpatch, USA. No matter that the esteemed Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. No matter that the actors did look like their cartoon counterparts. Al Capp’s cartoons were the real thing, and staged renderings paled by comparison.
With such a mindset for starters, this reviewer found it difficult to whip up enthusiasm for any staged “Li’l Abner,” including the current revival at Goodspeed Musicals. Nor did this revival itself merit raves. Staging and choreography were lackadaisical, and few good singing voices were on hand. The best of this show was to be found in its two appealing leads (Glenn Lawrence in the title role and Christeena Michelle Riggs as Daisy Mae) and David Gallo’s right-on-target set design. The set and props--cartoons brought to life--are truly the stars of the show. Shacks, statues, and the Lincoln Memorial are all delightful black-and-white cut-outs. As for the lead performers, both have the ability to put over songs and characterizations. Riggs is a cuddly little number, a virgin ripe for the picking. And Lawrence, also ripe for the picking, is a tall, broad-shouldered hunk with a goofy smile.
Moreover, it must be acknowledged, the players (outfitted in Michael Krass’s silly costumes) look like faithful renditions of the comic strip characters. And, besides the two leads, others offer striking moments in the show. William McCauley as General Bullmoose talks/sings his way through “Progress is the Root of All Evil,” making a strong, hilarious comment on corrupt politics. And Christopher Windom, as the sly, slinky Evil Eye Fleagle is by far the best dancer of the lot. His moments on stage lift the show to a higher professional level.
All told, “Li’l Abner” does not measure up to the best of Goodspeed offerings. But there’s always the bar, the terrace, the glorious river view, the sheer fun of a day trip to Goodspeed.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 21, 2006