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Musicals Tonight! Serves up L’IL ABNER

Bill Coyne and Jody Cook in L'IL ABNER (Photo: Michael Portantiere)

Based on the Al Capp comic strip of the same title, and featuring a terrific score by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, the musical L’il Abner was a big hit when it originally opened on Broadway in 1956. But first-class revivals since then have been scarce, and the show has not yet returned to Broadway, perhaps because the strip is no longer in publication and the content of the musical is viewed as dated.

Well, I’ll concede point #1 as factual, but point #2 is hogwash. Abner is filled with political humor that has somehow remained fresh as a newly picked apple despite the passage of more than half a century. Though at its heart the show is about whether the big, dumb, gentle hunk Abner Yokum will allow sweet, curvaceous Daisy Mae to catch him in the Sadie Hawkins Day parade so that they may be married, the big plot point is how the citizens of Dogpatch react to the news that their little backwoods town has been selected as the site of an atomic bomb test (because the government  has decided that the town is completely “unnecessary”).

Some of the local yokels travel to Washington, D.C. in order to prevent their home from being blown off the face of the earth. This “little guy against corrupt/inept government” situation leads to songs such as “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands,” chock-full of wittily sarcastic Mercer lyrics that sound like they might have been written yesterday. (Samples: “The treasury says the national debt is climbing to the sky / And government expenditures have never been so high / It makes a feller get a gleam of pride within his eye /  To see how our economy expands/ The country’s in the very best of hands!” And: “Them GOPs and Democrats each hates the other one / They’s always criticizin’ how the country should be run / But neither tells the public what the other’s gone and done / As long as no one knows where no one stands / The country’s in the very best of hands!”)

Since L’il Abner is all about the brilliance of the writing and requires little in the way of elaborate production values, it’s a great choice for Musicals Tonight! This company is beloved for its small-scale, bare-bones, staged concert presentations of truly obscure tuners that one is highly unlikely to see anywhere else on the planet; we’re talking titles like Silk Stockings, Three Wishes for Jamie, Cabaret Girl, and so on. MT’s Abner, directed and choreographed by Thomas Sabella-Mills and now playing in the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, has no sets to speak of, but there are some really fun costumes. Piano accompaniment is provided by music director James Stenborg.

The cast is aces.  Bill Coyne shines as Abner, somehow managing to come across as lovable and stuck-up at the same time.  Jessica Wagner is an adorable Daisy Mae with a very pretty voice, and the show boasts spot-on character work by a stellar company including Jody Cook as Marryin’ Sam, David Brent Howard as Earthquake McGoon, Mike O’Carroll as General Bullmoose, Jennifer Winegardner doing double duty as Appassionata Von Climax and Moonbeam McSwine, Roger Rifkin as Pappy Yokum, and Broadway veteran Mary Stout as Mammy Yokum.  L’il Abner continues at Theatre Row through April 1; for more information, visit www.musicalstonight.org.

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