LI’L ABNER, a musical based on the comic strip characters created by Al Cap that was a hit in the 1950’s, is being given a cute dust-off by M&M Stage Productions at The Kelsey Theatre. Very much a production of its time, LI’L ABNER is an Eisenhower-era gentle political satire that resonates somewhat to the 21st century but it has so many creaks in its book that it’s easy to see why no major revivals have been mounted. Still, this production is entertaining and a fun way to spend an evening in the theater, partly as a window into our musical past and partly just because the spunky cast fully commits to the style of the piece.
This comedic musical centers around the town of Dogpatch. When residents of Dogpatch are notified by the government that they must evacuate, they try to persuade the government that their town is worth saving. Meanwhile, Earthquake McGoon (played by Evan Bilinski) wants to marry Daisy Mae (played by Amber Payne, making her Kelsey Theatre debut); Daisy Mae wants to marry Abner Yokum (played by Glenn Kraft, also a Kelsey Theatre newcomer), and Abner just wants to go fishing, until it is learned that Abner’s Mammy (played by Kathleen Kutalek) and her Yokumberry Tonic might be enough to save the town. Abner offers the tonic to Washington, but General Bullmoose (played by Kelsey Theatre favorite Tom Bessellieu) wants it as well, so Bullmoose tries to trap Abner into marrying his attractive but ditzy executive secretary, Appassionata (played by Kristina Lunetta). Meanwhile, Daisy Mae pledges herself to Earthquake in marriage in exchange for rescuing Abner from Bullmoose.
Plot chaos ensues.
Under the fast paced staging of Matt South and the fun music direction by Charlie DeMets, the entire cast does credit to the comic book style of the piece. As the iconic lovebirds, Amber Payne makes a sweet voiced and fetching Daisy Mae, while Glenn Kraft brings a pleasing voice to the title character. Kathleen Kutalek takes comedic command as Mammy Yokum. As her seemingly cowed husband who “grows a pair” near the end of the show, Pat Parton proves an excellent Pappy Yokum. Del Howard displays a fine funny flair as Marryin’ Sam. Tom Bessellieu continues his consistent streak of fine performances as General Bullmoose and, despite some antediluvian lyrics, manages to nicely pull off the song “Progress is the Root of All Evil.” Almost everyone else in the ensemble takes on multiple roles and they do it well.
LI’L ABNER is a musical with deep roots embedded in its time period. However, there are a few dramaturgical resonances which still reverberate now. For instance, the especially ironic number “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” remains an anti-paean to the generally ineffectual, stagnant Congress we have in office today. But we don’t go to Kelsey Theatre for the immediate lessons of a new musical age, we go to see a glimpse of our past, in order to get insight into our American musical antecedents, and to be reminded of the foundations upon which our new musicals stand. Sometimes bedrock, sometimes shaky, they are always interesting. Once more, M&M Stage Productions deserves credit for bringing us a work like LI’L ABNER, a musical that is a post-war work at the dawn of the nuclear age that itself reached back to the Depression (the comic strip was born in the 1930s) for characters and comedy to help soothe uncertain times.
Tickets for LI’L ABNER are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $16 for students and children. Tickets are available online or by calling the Kelsey Theatre Box Office at 609-570-3333. Kelsey Theatre is wheelchair accessible, with free parking available next to the theater.