At first glance, the musical Li'l Abner seems like a cartoony farce without much substance. After all, it's based on a newspaper comic strip.
But, like the late Al Capp's long-running comic strip, the musical is filled with biting social and political comments and caustic, hilarious irony. Listen carefully to The Country's in the Very Best of Hands after Abner comes home after a visit to Washington, D.C., for example.
It takes a confident cast, thorough preparation, good sound projection and deft direction to make the comments count, and, for the most part, the Stage West Community Playhouse production playing weekends through March 21 scores on all counts.
The comic strip ran for 43 years (1934-1977), but the musical takes place over a span of a few days in 1956. In it, the U.S. government is looking for a place to test nuclear weapons because the present site is much too close to the valuable gambling mecca, Las Vegas.
That's when ostentatious Sen. Jack S. Phogbound (a properly pompous Ray Johnson) arrives in Abner's hometown of Dogpatch, Ky., to announce that since Dogpatch has been declared completely unnecessary, it will be the new nuclear test site.
Like many uncomprehending people at political rallies who cheer anything, the dimwit denizens of Dogpatch cheer wildly — until they learn they'll have to start taking baths if they go outside their hometown. Then they decide they'll have to save the town any way they can.
That eventually takes Abner and several of his male pals to Washington, while the women back home pine for their men.
Director Peter Clapsis blessed his production with several excellent performers and voices to tell this story.
Foremost is the handsome Mitch Gonzalez as Li'l Abner (though his platform shoes look more Frankenstein than Li'l Abner). Gonzalez's strong voice, open, appealing face and nicely negotiated body language are just right for the character, and he neither overplays nor underplays this role.
Gonzalez is ably backed by an adorable Betsy Glasson as the tiny Mammy Yokum with the big voice ("Ah has spoken!"); Dave Stenger as a scruffy Pappy Yokum; Leonard Klatt as the fast-talking Dr. Rasmussen T. Finsdale; Allen Voorhees as the bombastic General Bullmoose; Bill Dimmitt as the big-talking Mayor Dan'l Dawgmeat; and the ever-dependable W. Paul Wade, perfectly cast as the big, tough, over-bearing Earthquake McGoon, who lusts for the sweet Daisy Mae (Sharon Vetter), even as Abner seems blissfully unaware of her physical charms.
Also outstanding is Dalton Benson as Marryin' Sam, who leads the praises for local hero Jubilation T. Cornpone in both acts and does a little fancy footwork alongside Daisy Mae.
The sizable cast is packed with able players, and musical director Christopher Berke makes the most of their voices in choral numbers. Interestingly, even though dancing was a major part of the original Broadway production (it won a Tony Award for choreography), there's no dancing in this production, nor a choreographer in the production crew.
There's a minimalist set — a painted backdrop, simple bench, and a few other suggestions of place — which, with so many colorful characters, works just fine.
Beverly Dube-O'Looney's backwoods costumes add just the right comical touch, especially the whimsically fake beards and Hairless Joe's (Angelo Cutillo) hair.
The story moves along at a nice clip, which could (and should) be tightened by eliminating the forays into the audience (does anybody else dislike this kind of thing as much as I do?) and letting the actors enter and exit on stage instead of up and down the theater aisles, which is distracting and breaks the mood. So does the over-use of the main curtain, when most scene shifts could be just as effectively done with darkouts and spotlights instead.
That said, Li'l Abner's energetic music, sight gags, comedy, appealing characters and easy-to-follow story make this a good show for all ages.