• U.S.

The Theater: New Musical in Manhattan, Nov. 26, 1956

2 minute read

Li’l Abner (based on Al Capp’s characters ; book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank; music by Gene de Paul; lyrics by Johnny Mercer) sometimes gloriously explodes, sometimes damply splutters, as a big Broadway show. Suddenly, with something fine and deafening from the orchestra, suddenly with something fine and floor-shaking from the chorus, Al Capp’s comic-strip community bounces to life. At other times, behind musicomedy goggles, Capp’s satiric eye notes and needles skulduggery, stupidity, conformity. But there are numerous occasions when the Capp menagerie, let out of their neat newspaper cages, noisily lose their way stumbling,in too many directions.

Whether characters who are full-fashioned in pen and ink can ever do as well in flesh and blood may well be doubted. But it is less the characters than the characteristics of comic-strip life that make for trouble on Broadway. Plainly the chopped-up repetitions, the churning status quo that go down fine a spoonful a day in a newspaper could sadly pall as an evening-long drink on the stage. On the stage, accordingly, Li’l Abner has been swamped with plot, which not only palls but plods. Also, by never letting anyone relax, the plot robs Dogpatch of its homey, day-to-day, ferocious charm. Something extra is frequently needed.

Happily, something extra—and even, in Michael Kidd’s case, extra-special—is sometimes supplied. If the Dogpatchers can be dull when they walk, they are dazzling when they run. Choreographer Kidd’s Sadie Hawkins Day ballet is a wonderful matrimonial chase in which Al Capp’s womenfolk become amorous Keystone Cops. In the Visigothic descent of the Dogpatchers on General Bullmoose’s formal ball, Kidd has created one of the memorable shambles scenes in Broadway history. And for the show’s rousingest music, Jubilation T. Cornpone, Kidd has made a packed stageful of bodies rock with movement while their voices are raised in song.

There are also some lively satirical ditties, among them an ode to conformity looking forward to when

Assembly-line women, conveyor-belt men Settle down in push-button homes.

The show is nicely cast, with Peter Palmer and Edith Adams pleasant as Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae, and Stubby Kaye and Charlotte Rae more flavorsome as Marryin’ Sam and Mammy Yokum. And its best production numbers are real high points. But the distance from one high point to another is sometimes noticeably long.

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