Kudzu, the vine, is an insidious plant, but "Kudzu," the musical, is a gentle, amiable creature.
This light satire of things Southern, receiving a pleasing world premiere at Ford's Theatre in Washington, is a joint venture by Jack Herrick and Bland Simpson, two members of the string band the Red Clay Ramblers, and Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist whose comic strip about a teen-age boy named "Kudzu" is syndicated in 300 newspapers, including the Sun.
A modest musical, directed with spunk by Lisa Portes, "Kudzu" would be lost on Broadway and might even seem out of place on slick, sophisticated off-Broadway. But it's a good fit for small regional theaters, summer stock or, for that matter, Ford's, where the show's toe-tapping melodies, sweet romantic subplot and themes of friendship, perseverance and all-American individual initiative are readily accessible to a tourist-driven audience.
The action takes place in Kudzu's hometown of Bypass, N.C., on his 18th birthday, when a letter from his long-absent father deeds him the family land -- the town's sole gas station and the surrounding kudzu-choked acres.
The gift comes at the same time that Bypass' leading businessman, a wheeler-dealer named Big Bubba Tadsworth, is about to sell off the town to a pair of Japanese investors. But the deal can't go through without Kudzu's choice real estate. So Tadsworth enlists the aid of everyone from his own bubble-headed cheerleader daughter to the enthusiastic local preacher, the Rev. Will B. Dunne, to persuade Kudzu to part with his property.
What's a well-meaning cartoon character to do -- help his hometown become part of the modernized New South, as the forward-thinking reverend sees it, or hang on to his heritage (mired in not only the past, but also that dang-blasted suffocating vine)?
Herrick and Simpson and three other Red Clay Ramblers (Clay Buckner, Ed Butler and Chris Frank) play supporting roles and perform the show's jaunty score -- a mixture of country, string swing, mountain music and a touch of gospel. The songs vary from the lovely "Duet for One," a song of unrequited love; to "Jesus Was Not An Alien," a comic hymn to tabloid religion; to "Mine," a waltz about unmitigated greed.
A few numbers -- including "Hey, Earl," a piece of sentimental ooze sung to a stuffed animal and "Air Nasal," which ends with Kudzu's pal, Nasal T. Lardbottom, jumping on a trampoline -- merely slow down the proceedings. But most of the show's silliness actually turns out to have a purpose.
And, if characters such as Kudzu's shrill Mama (Beth Leavel), villainous Big Bubba (Roger Howell) and even James Ludwig's NTC gee-whiz Kudzu (who looks like an overgrown Dennis the Menace) seem rather two-dimensional, well, that sounds like a compliment for a cartoon.
Two decades ago, another Washington theater, Kennedy Center, helped launch a comic-strip musical, "Annie," that became a show-business phenomenon. "Kudzu" is unlikely to follow in its blockbuster footsteps, but in its own small way, the show reaffirms that the funny papers can not only sing and dance; sometimes they have a heart.
Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St. N.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 1 p.m. Thursdays and 3 p.m. Sundays; through June 28
Pub Date: 3/31/98