DRAPER–Li’l Abner is a musical, around since 1956, that utilizes the characters and setting of Al Capp’s popular comic strip. The show takes place in a small, lazy town somewhere in the South. To any outsider, it might appear to be an unnecessary place. But when the federal government tries to relocate the Dogpatchers, consequentially disrupting their traditions and simple way of life, the townspeople find the gumption to work together toward a cause.
I did a little research after the show, to find out who wrote the play, because Draper Historic Theater didn’t provide this information in their program. I don’t know if it’s legally required, but it’s at least a gesture of respect to list the names of the writers, composers, and lyricists. (They did list this on their website.) In this case, the clever plot and fun lines for Li’l Abner were written by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. The toe-tapping songs, such as “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands,” were created by Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer.
It was a musical that I had never heard of or seen before, and I was very impressed with what those creators had, well, created. Draper Historic Theater did a valiant job with Li’l Abner and I was impressed with what Ken Coon (director) made of this show. I was pleased to see how well Coon utilized his space, for one. There were distinct locations for each scene, which I think helped the storyline. I liked the use of the aisles, as well, for characters to come and go.
One major drawback to this show is the length. It was almost three hours long. My attention span has admittedly shortened recently, but three hours is a lot to ask of an audience. One way the show could have been shortened is to cut out the refrains. I have a major problem with refrains, especially in a three-hour show. As an audience, we awkwardly clapped at the “end” of a song, and then heard the song start again. Cut them out and save the audience some time.
There were some great characters in this show. Geoff Means was sharp as Senator Phogbound. His smooth demeanor and confidence helped him stand out from the hillbillies of Dogpatch; that nice cream suit didn’t hurt, either. Means enters the play during the town meeting with some wonderful news; I don’t want to give it away because it was hilarious, but the news meant that the citizens needed to move out of town. (Most of the show’s comedy is dramatic irony: the characters are happy about things we know they shouldn’t be happy about.)
I really enjoyed choreographer Chareese Carter’s dancing and celebration after the Senator’s news. Inserting two random cloggers in the middle of the dance number, though, seemed odd.
Deborah Wouden and Cathy Clark provided the costumes in this show. I loved the contrasts between the almost caveman-like Dogpatch folk and the people from Washington, DC. Any time there was something sparkly, too, it really stood out. However, I hated the fake hair–the beards, mustaches, and bald-cap were horrific. (But maybe they were supposed to be? It is based on a comic strip, after all.) Pappy’s beard and hair were the only exception.
I have no complaints about the orchestra. In fact, any time I was focused on the music, itself, I found it lovely and fun, so kudos to musical director Joey Calkins. The orchestra members were Julie Hales, Nancy Jensen, Ralph Faneus, Marie Crockett, and Danica SheaLynn Bauer. Musically, I was very pleased with this community production; there was no painful singing whatsoever.
Lyrically, though, it seems to be a challenging show, as I lost quite a bit of content due to enunciation and projection. Such was the case in the opening number “A Typical Day,” which introduces basically every character that lives in Dogpatch. It’s a lot of information with several complicated names and the cast failed to deliver it clearly. The choruses of the number were fine, so the blame lies with the soloists. If you earn a solo, make darn sure the audience is going to hear and understand it.
The main character of the show was Li’l Abner (Jonathan S. Tate) and he did a commendable job. I would have like it if Tate were more expressive vocally and with his facial expressions. When he sang, especially, he may have been focusing on the notes, because his face was kind of blank. I noticed this most particularly in the song “Unnecessary.” It would add so much to his performance if he looked like he really meant what he was singing.
Another lead, in fact he had a whole song to himself, was General Bullmoose played by Warren Garceau. “Progress is the Root of All Evil,” was a cryin’ shame, because General Bullmoose didn’t know his lyrics. Most of his lines during the show were choppy, as well. As someone who has spent most of my theater time in the ensemble, my opinion is that if you earn the privilege of playing a lead, learn your part. Please.
One great lead was Daisy, who was played by Angela Rowberry, and she was adorable. I loved her look, her voice, and her character. I never lost her lines. Rowberry is a very talented girl. “Namely Me” was a cute scene between Rowberry and Tate and “Love in a Home,” too, made me feel all sappy for those two good characters and their simple desires to live happily.
In Dogpatch, each year there is a race where the women chase the men, and if they catch their man, they get to marry him. It’s the only way to get married in Dogpatch. Daisy had been tryin’ to catch Abner for years. The idea of a Sadie Hawkins Day race was in the original comic, and is such a funny idea. The race was well-planned by the director and choreographer. I also thought it was charming when three fellas and three ladies danced around the trees during the race. The kids in the theater laughed quite a bit during the whole scene. I took my six-year-old daughter with me, and though she appeared to be confused about the plot, there was enough color and movement in this show to keep her entertained. “That was great!” she said.
Once a gal catches her man, next she needs to talk to Marryin’ Sam. Brett Davis played this fun character, with lines about what would be included in his “two dollar wedding” package (which included mules, wrestling, and other miscellaneous features.) Davis is a good actor and I would have liked to hear him better. When he sang, especially, I lost most of what he was saying. I’m pretty sure the lyrics in “Jubilation T. Cornpone” were super clever, but I just couldn’t catch them. (I sat on the fourth row, by the way.) Whenever the whole cast sang together, it sounded very good. But again, I lost the words in verses over and over.
I was pleased with the fishing-hole scene, near the beginning of the show, which was an all male number, delivered near the front of the stage. I heard each line and they sang their harmonies well in “If I Had My Druthers.” I would say that, overall, one liners from the ensemble, throughout the whole production, were loud, clear, and energetic.
Abner’s mother is played by Julie Ledesma, who gave it the ol’ college try. Oh, Mammy–you had such character, but we couldn’t hear you. It felt like you were almost whispering. The director apparently tried to mike her, but it wasn’t good enough. I think the only scene I could really hear her in was at the town meeting; it was tragic to lose what I’m sure was a great performance and funny character: “I haz spoken.” Ledesma’s counterpart, Pappy played by Matt Adams was just plain hilarious. Way to go, Adams. My daughter said, “That old guy is crazy!”
I thought the show was charming, with its catchphrases and colorful characters. I need to give a virtual high-five to the following secondary characters:
- Available Jones (Noah Martinez)
- Evil Eye Fleagle (Erik Nielsen)
- Appassionata Von Climax (Diana Anteljevic)
- Earthquake McGoon (Dan Martinez)
- Ensemble members (Sydney Adams and Whitney Orr)
Bring a sweater to the chilly Draper Historic Theater and enjoy this live-action comic strip. It’s clever and funny; the cast is strong and committed. You may not catch all the words, but you could be tapping your toes on the ride home. (My daughter sang, “Jubilation T. Cornpone” in the car.) The theater’s easy to find and if you have a few hours to spare, I recommend it. There’s a lot of heart at Draper Historic Theater.