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THEATER REVIEW

At 50, `Li'l Abner' is still mad-Capp fun

April 26, 2006|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

The satirical spirit of cartoonist Al Capp gallops like a wide-eyed siren chasing a dimwitted hunk throughout "Li'l Abner," which Musical Theatre Guild presented in a 50th anniversary concert on Monday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. America has altered immeasurably since 1956, when Norman Panama, Melvin Frank, Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul turned Capp's classic comic strip into a Broadway hit. Yet, despite dated topical references, this rambunctious tuner retains an affable kick.

Screenwriters-turned-librettists Panama and Frank wed Capp's most celebrated story line -- the eternal pursuit of endearing loon Abner Yokum (the wonderful Damon Kirsche) by nubile Daisy Mae (Melissa Fahn, daftly adorable) -- to musical comedy conventions and swipes at government skulduggery.

Mercer's lyrics and De Paul's music are a pleasant mix of Capp-happy tartness and Shubert Alley smarts. "It's a typical day, in Dogpatch, U.S.A.," goes the opening -- although Capp's archetypes are only typical if one hails from Tobacco Road.

Abner's parents, imposing Mammy (Eydie Alyson) and henpecked Pappy (Chuck Bergman), emerge hilariously stylized. So do the local yokels: Marryin' Sam (Joe Hart), Earthquake McGoon (Eric Leviton), Moonbeam McSwine (Jenny Gordon), Stupefyin' Jones (Meloney Collins), Daisy's shiftless relations (Chris Warren Gilbert and Peter Musante), ad infinitum.

Act 1 turns on the annual Sadie Hawkins Day race, where unwed females marry the unwilling bachelors they catch. As usual with Capp, trouble comes from Washington. Federal employee Rasmussen Finsdale (Steven Hack) announces that "unnecessary" Dogpatch is a designated nuclear test site, until Mammy's yokumberry tonic, which transforms geeks into supermen, buys a reprieve.

However, corrupt Gen. Bullmoose (the priceless Michael Kostroff) covets the profits he sees in Mammy's steroidal brew. He, ennui-laden Apassionata von Climax (scene-stealing Cynthia Ferrer) and Evil Eye Fleagle (Danny Stiles, a hoot) conspire to dash Daisy's nuptial hopes as Act 1 ends.

Act 2 brings more reversals and social jibes. Of course, it ends happily, courtesy of Jubilation T. Cornpone, the Confederate Army's worst officer and subject of "Li'l Abner's" best-known showstopper, which Hart and company sell like crawdads at a tent revival.

In concert, director-choreographer Roger Castellano can only suggest Michael Kidd's explosive original staging. Yet he does so deftly, aided by Dennis Castellano's adroit musical direction, Shon LeBlanc's grab-bag costumes and the madcap cast. Brian Brigham, Linda Igarishi, Lyndie Renee, Darrell Sandeen, Glenn Shiroma, Robert Townsend and Susan Watson complete an appealing slate.

There are lapses: mike imbalance, an underpowered "Put 'Em Back," some political ironies that carry unintended darkness in these post-Katrina, pre-Divine Strake times.

Nevertheless, this frisky revival is charming, undiluted Yokum hokum.

*

'Li'l Abner'

Where: Scherr Forum, Countrywide Performing Arts Center, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Price: $38

Contact: (805) 583-8700 or www.ticketmaster.com

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

*

Also

Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center (in association with Musical Theatre West), 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. May 8

Price: $27.50

Contact: (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4

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