Collin Theatre Center’s ambitious, energetic musical a cornpone hoot
Long before Disney began changing all of its charming, 80-minute animated films into bloated, three-hour musical mammoths, no one less than Johnny Mercer, the great gay songwriter, tackled the Sunday funnies. Inspired by Al Capp’s subversively cornpone satiric comic strip, "Li’l Abner" opened on Broadway in the late 1950s and has been endlessly revived by high school drama departments ever since.
I’m not sure why. Mercer’s talents aside, there are no enduring musical masterpieces among the densely packed score, which mixes sprightly chorus numbers with treacly torch songs.
Its longevity probably owes to a big cast which, for the most part, is incapable of overacting the roles. Capp’s humor was cutting but approachable, with outrageoCprusly named characters, from Jack S. Phogbound (Jack S. = jackass, get it?) to Daisy Mae (she may what?) to the incongruously named title character, a lurching behemoth who’s only little above the neck. The show lends itself to exaggerated acting and elbow-in-the-ribs jokes.
But it isn’t "The Beverly Hillbillies" so much as a redneck Woody Allen the humor is biting, but it sneaks up on you. The residents of Dogpatch are so gosh-durned excited to learn that their insignificant little hamlet it has been ‘specially selected by the Yoo-nited Stated Gov’mit as target practice for atomic bombs that the idea of nuclear winter seems to go right by them. Their guilelessness packs a political punchline: Mayberry meets Mort Sahl.
Take, for instance, a key plot point: The secret Yokum berry tonic, indigenous to Abner’s homestead, has the ability to turn ordinary men into hulking musclebound studs with the side effect that they lose all sexual desire for women. If there has ever been a more overt message of gay gym culture in a family-friendly musical, I’m not aware of it.
The cast is as sizeable as a real town at one point, I counted 32 actors on stage at once. Stars among them include Corey Cleary-Stoner as a wiry Pappy Yokum; James Chandler hilariously hulking as a wide-eyed Earthquake McGoon, who looks like the filthy inbred brother of Mr. Hyde; Jake Nelson as the handsome, evil Gen. Bullmoose (he has a lovely operatic baritone); and Nathan Beaudrie as the pouty-lipped hero. But it’s the entire cast that brings a dizzying degree of energy to the production they have the stamina only a crew of college-aged kids could.
Brad Baker directs the production as a Technicolor live action comic strip it’s like Splash Mountain, only you sit still and don’t get wet. Robin Armstrong’s costumes, especially the cat-like zoot suit on Evil Eye Fleagle, captures the comic’s down-home appeal perfectly. "Li’l Abner" may not be the most memorable show ever written, but this production certainly sticks with you.