Innocence may be the hardest thing onstage. Most of us lose it after puberty and have no idea how to reclaim it. What’s meant to be naivete comes off as coyness or self-conscious “Ain’t I cute?” behavior.
So it’s remarkable that Zach Teague and Beth Anderson give such innocent performances in “Li’l Abner,” a musical based on Al Capp’s cynical and condescending comic strip. Amid crooked politicians, swindling businessmen and shiftless, alcoholic lamebrains, the pair playing Abner Yokum and Daisy Mae Scragg remain the heart of this show, singing in small but appealing voices and projecting a gentle sweetness that rises above shenanigans around them.
Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, screenwriters behind many Bob Hope comedies, brought that knockabout, don’t-take-this-seriously approach to the book of this 1956 musical. Jokes are broad, characterizations narrow. Lyricist Johnny Mercer, who had a sense of humor but never liked to sting too hard, keeps the satire light. Gene De Paul’s songs perk along without being memorable.
So what kept the musical running for nearly 700 performances on Broadway against the likes of “My Fair Lady,” “Bells are Ringing” and “The Most Happy Fella”? The same thing that makes it worth seeing today at CPCC Summer Theatre: that innocent belief that a simple (if slightly simple-minded) love will triumph against all odds.
The show has been faithful to Capp’s vision, if not quite his cruelty. We meet the residents of Dogpatch in the opening number, and the ones who aren’t overtly crooked lie around collecting unemployment checks. They are as likely to be found sleeping among hounds, hogs, fleas or flies as the women who chase them, especially on Sadie Hawkins Day. (This “girl catches boy” holiday originated in the strip.)
Some of the most popular Capp characters are here: corrupt Sen. Jack S. Phogbound (Kevin Campbell), matchmaker Marryin’ Sam (Beau Stroupe, who sings the rousing “Jubilation T. Cornpone” about the town’s founder), acquisitive Gen. Bullmoose (James K. Flynn), predatory Appassionata Von Climax (Caroline Renfro) and a now-beardless Earthquake McGoon, the world’s dirtiest rassler (Steve Young). They’re less venal than Capp depicted them, but perhaps a little more fun.
The plot catches them up in hijinks about atomic bomb tests in Dogpatch, which the government plans to demolish unless the town demonstrates a reason to exist. Mammy and Pappy Yokum – a name Capp conflated from “yokel” and “hokum” – team up to save the day. (Cassandra Howley Wood and Hank West exactly embody Abner’s comic-strip parents.)
Director Tom Hollis, who first directed this play four decades ago as his entry into community theater, lets it be as goofy as it needs to be. Choreographer Eddie Mabry enters into the same gleeful spirit; if the two big dance numbers run long, that’s only because DePaul’s music can’t sustain these backwoods ballets.