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LA Theater Review

Li'l Abner

"If I had my druthers..." croons strapping hero Li'l Abner. If I had mine, Musical Theatre Guild would have selected a more durable vintage vehicle for its latest concert staged reading. The best things one might say about this retrograde country hoedown from 1956 are that its characters are marginally more interesting than Jed Clampett's hayseed brood from The Beverly Hillbillies and the Gene De Paul-Johnny Mercer score includes a couple of buoyant showstoppers. That said, the MTG contingent of seasoned performers, musicians, and behind-the-scenes talents have given this creaky cornball farce about as skillfully a staged rendition as one might hope for.

Viewing this warhorse for the first time provides a reminder that some shows that were perceived as jewels during Broadway's golden age feel more like paste imitations nowadays. It's based on Al Capp's long-running comic strip, set in the backwoods community of Dogpatch, USA. A showbiz pundit once cynically said that satire is what closes out of town in New Haven. That certainly seems true for topical satire from yesteryear. Capp's skewering of the government cut deeply during the strip's heyday, but now this Cold War-era story about Dogpatch being chosen as a nuclear test site, its citizens forced to evacuate what is deemed their "worthless" community, seems more ugly than amusing.

What works better are the tried-and-true romantic comedy conventions, as sassy country babe Daisy Mae (charmingly played by Melissa Fahn) sets her sights on good-ole-boy hunk Abner (played with gosh-shucks gusto and sung exquisitely by Damon Kirsche). Norman Panama and Melvin Frank's book is too convoluted for a featherweight farce, but the upside is that it allows for a large ensemble of actor-singer-dancers to have fun playing outrageous characters. Most notable in this game entourage are Eydie Alyson's feisty Mammy Yokum, Joe Hart's charismatic Marryin' Sam, Eric Leviton's spirited take on the aptly named Earthquake McGoon, and Michael Kostroff's corrupt General Bullmoose. Director-choreographer Roger Castellano and music director Dennis Castellano lead the company through a shipshape production, belying its scant preparation time. By the time the rousing "Jubilation T. Cornpone" is reprised at the end, this exuberant company almost convinces us that cornpone is the next best thing to class.

Presented by Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Mon. 7:30 p.m. Apr. 24. (818) 243-2539. Also at the Scherr Forum Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Sun. 3 p.m. Apr. 30. (805) 583-8700. And at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. Mon. 7:30 p.m. May 8. (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.

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