opening shot L'il Abner

Musicals Tonight Presents L’il Abner

opening shot L'il Abner

L’il Abner opened in 1956 and ran for 693 performances. The 1956-57 Broadway season included My Fair Lady and Bells Are Ringing. Movies included Giant and The Ten Commandments. Elvis Presley had five songs on the hit parade, I Love Lucy and The $64,000 Question were popular on TV. An average monthly rent was $88, average yearly wages topped out at $4,450, a gallon of gas was $.22…

Courtesy of the indefatigable Mel Miller, Founder and Producer of Musicals Tonight

Appearing in newspapers in the United States, Canada and Europe, the comic strip on which the musical was based featured a fictional clan of seemingly simple hillbillies in the impoverished town of Dogpatch, Kentucky. Its author, Al Capp, successfully satirized American values for 43 years. The musical is an uncomplicated trifle, simply written as befitting its source material and the social climate in which it opened. Except for political observations that hold true today and might play well in current  D.C. Follies, it’s dated but lightheartedly entertaining.

The lads of Dogpatch who fish, loaf and collect unemployment, marry only when caught by young women in a Sadie Hawkins Day race. Daisy Mae (Jessica Wagner) has chased L’il Abner (Bill Coyne) for years. Each time she comes close, he sprints off. On the cusp of 18, Daisy feels she’s “past her prime.” Parents of the elusive groom, Mammy (Mary Stout) and Pappy Yokum (Roger Rifkin), are in favor of the marriage. Lunk, Earthquake McGoon (David Brent Howard) wants her for himself.

The greater wisdom of Washington D.C. has decided to move A-Bomb testing to Dogpatch having found it completely “unnecessary.” If the town is relocated before Sadie Hawkins Day, laws revert back to a man’s acquiring his bride with only the permission of her nearest kin necessary. Mammy’s Yokum Berry Tonic, made from a single existing tree and spooned into the strapping L’il Abner every day of his life, might just have miracle attributes making the town sufficiently “necessary” not to be wiped off the face of the map.

The government gets involved under the aegis of Dr. Rasmusssen T. Finsdale (Dan Debenport) as does nefarious industrialist General Bullmoose (Mike O’Carroll) and his ditsy girlfriend Appassionata Von Climax (Jennifer Winegardner). There are lots of silly plots.

Jessica Wagner (Daisy Mae) is a perfect sweet-faced, nubile ingénue. One hardly misses a blonde wig. Wagner portrays innocence as if she was born to it and embodies dreamy young love with every gaze and song. Her pretty voice with its gentle vibrato seem the character incarnate. Good casting.

Bill Coyne (L’il Abner) is a perfect pairing to Wagner. They frankly look adorable together. With a face like the young Christopher Reeves, appropriate muscles and a wonderfully obtuse comic manner, the actor creates (in context) a delightfully credible character. Add a pleasant tenor voice and effective body language to complete the well illustrated role.

Mary Stout (Mammy Yokum) and Roger Rifkin (Pappy Yokum) are also perfectly paired. Stout’s Mammy is believably gruff, pig-headed, and accustomed to ruling the roost. The actress handles her pipe as well as obstreperous reactions. Rifkin’s Pappy is a frustrated milk toast-until he isn’t. A master of subjugated expressions, the Musicals Tonight regular gives his character real presence.

Jody Cook (Marryin’ Sam) is good with comic innuendo and vocal phrasing (no easy task holding the book). He delivers a sustained tone of being not quite with it, managing to be clownish but never a full out buffoon.

Mike O’Carroll (General Bullmoose) is terrific. Epitomizing everything “evil” in the play (and capitalist society), he wears the kind of outsized, smug bearing easily attributable to Vanderbilts and Morgans like a proud mantle. An emphatic stage presence, O’Carroll delivers the goods with timing and brio. Jennifer Weingardner (Appassionata Von Climax/Moonbeam McSwine) does a lovely, low key turn as Appassionata successfully shaded by Judy Holiday.

Thomas Sabella-Mills (Director/Choreographer) fills this production with nifty visuals. His characters often lazily lean on one another creating attractive mood evoking compositions. Choreography for the “remade” men of Dogpatch is clever and humorous. The Sadie Hawkins Day race is inspired and well realized. Naiveté and comic thickness appropriately pervades. Leads are defined.

James Stenborg (Music Director/Vocal Arranger) offers a multitude of nice harmonies. Arrangements are as varied as they can be and voices are utilized to best show off both actors and roles.

Casting Director Holly Buczek deserves a special call out for this one. Actors are physically as well as musically suited to their roles creating a great quirky look in tandem with talent.

Photo credit: Michael Portantiere

Top photo:

Left to right, Roger Rifkin (Pappy Yokum),Dan Debenport (Dr.Rasmussen T. Finsdale), Bill Coyne (L’il Abner), Jody Cook (Marrin’ Sam), Jessica Wagner (Daisy Mae)

Second photo: Jessica Wagner (Daisy Mae) and Bill Coyne (L’il Abner)

Third photo:
Left: “Remade” Men: David Raimo (Ensemble), Bill Coyne (Abner), Aaron Young (Ensemble), BJ Olson (Ensemble)
Right: Chorus: Lindsay Braverman (Ensemble), Savannah Frazier (Ensemble), Alison Maldonado (Stupefyin’ Jones/Ensemble); Mike O’Carroll (General Bullmoose), Jennifer Wingardner (Appassionate Von Climax)

Musicals Tonight presents
L’il Abner by Gene de Paul & Johnny Mercer 1956
Based on characters created by Al Capp
Directed and Choreographed by Thomas Sabella-Mills
Music Director, Vocal Arranger-James Stenborg
The Lion Theater
410 west 42nd Street
Telecharge 212-560-2186
Through April 1, 2012

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