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Theater review: Li'l Abner 

Yokum hokum is back at CPCC

It's unlikely that I've seen Li'l Abner since the last time CPCC presented it in 1988 at Pease Auditorium. Al Capp, who created the characters and the comic strip that Norman Panama and Melvin Frank based their 1956 script upon, muddied his acceptance in theatrical circles during his later years, delighting in skewering liberals — after twice supporting Stevenson against Ike! A talk show celebrity in his declining years, Capp would likely be a Fox News sensation today.

Or maybe the years have blurred the memory of the musical that features music by Gene de Paul and lyrics by the estimable Johnny Mercer. "Jubilation T. Cornpone," celebrating the founding father of Dogpatch, USA, probably best encapsulates the spirit of the show, but the jejune "Namely You," better tailored for soloists, gets far more play.

Both of those songs appear in Act 1, which clocked in at 82 minutes last Friday at the current CPCC Summer Theatre production in Halton Theater. That's a long time to be watching clichéd hillbillies. Listening carefully to the finely spun cynicism of "Jubilation T." helped me discover that the ordeal wasn't quite as innocuous as I had feared.

Capp's disdain for Washington politicians and greedy industrialists may actually have been greater than his scorn for hillbilly ignorance and Confederate nostalgia. So it's moderately refreshing when Daisy Mae's endless struggle to rope Li'l Abner into matrimony — while avoiding the drooling advances of Earthquake McGoon — are interrupted by the incursions of big guv'ment and big business. The whole hormonal chase down in Dogpatch doesn't exactly bring out the best in Daisy or Abner, and the kibitzing from the sidelines by Mammy and Pappy Yokum doesn't make matrimony seem holy.

Every Dogpatcher can unite behind the effort to thwart General Bullmoose's effort to land the patent rights to Mammy's Magical Elixir — and Senator Jack S. Phogbound's clueless legislation shutting down Dogpatch in honor of its utter uselessness. That makes Act 2 far more palatable, particularly when it clocks in at a relatively spare 50 minutes.

Production levels at CP this summer remain as high as they were for The Scarlet Pimpernel while attendance is just as low. Scenic design by Gary Sivak, not called upon for another dose of continental elegance, is actually more successful in achieving its rusticated aims, and Jamey Varnadore's costumes, although too elfin and garish for some of the townspeople, are absolutely spot-on for nearly all the major characters.

It's director Tom Hollis rather than Varnadore whom I chiefly suspect of decreeing a modicum of feminist correctness in the females' attire. Except for the Tammy Faye eyeliner and makeup, Daisy Mae is unaltered, and aside from the body stocking, there can be no objection to the display of town siren Stupefyin' Jones' pulchritude. But Appassionata Von Climax, the minion deployed by Bullmoose to corral Abner, looks absolutely matronly and tailored compared with the 1959 film.

Nor is Zach Teague compelled to wear a wig that would affirm his comic strip kinship with Abner and Superman. Chemistry between Teague and the unpainted Beth Anderson as Daisy Mae is completely cleansed of all the swampy caveman vulgarity that was manifest in our nation's tabloids. The couple are quite wholesome in their "Namely You" duet, almost poignant in their second hook-up, "Love in a Home," when things aren't going well up in Washington.

Marrying into the Yokum family should have given Daisy Mae some misgivings. Wearing a prosthetic beak and wielding a corncob pipe, Cassandra Howley Wood bestows a Smurf-like crotchetiness on Mammy that would be sufficient reason for me to hop aboard the next train out of Dogpatch, while Hank West is the quintessence of uselessness as Pappy — the surest indication that he will have something valuable to contribute if he ever gets a word in edgewise.

After his fine stint as Chauvelin in Pimpernel, Beau Stroupe presides with gusto over Dogpatch's only detectable industry as Marryin' Sam. There's a historic connection between "Jubilation T. Cornpone" and Nicely Nicely Johnson's "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" in Guys and Dolls. His name is Stubby Kaye, so it's hardly surprising that Stroupe has now excelled in both roles.

Although dressed up with all the appeal of Vicki Lawrence portraying Carol Burnett's mother, Caroline Renfro does what she can with Appassionata. Safe from being upstaged by his secretary, James K. Flynn is self-assured and captivating as Gen. Bullmoose, reminding us in "Progress Is the Root of All Evil" that Bullmoose belongs in the same tradition of conceited rogues as Captain Hook and Billy Flynn.

Kevin Campbell as Sen. Phogbound and Steve Young as Earthquake deliver yeomen's work, and Aubrey Jones shimmies up a tornado as Stupeyin' Jones. But in a lime-green suit and hat, Michael Bingham steals a couple of scenes as Evil Eye Fleagle with his creepy, comical stealth.

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