It's July in Annapolis and the summer theater season is about to rev into high gear, powered in no small measure by the Talent Machine Company - founded by director, choreographer and showbiz dynamo Bobbi Smith, who died in 2001.
Talented junior thespians appear in a pair of productions each summer, one populated by the troupe's younger members, the other by the gifted performers who attend area high schools.
This year, the younger set takes the stage first at Key Auditorium on the campus of St. John's College for Li'l Abner, the 1950s musical that brought cartoonist Al Capp's daffy and delightful denizens of Dogpatch to Broadway and, later, the silver screen.
Hillbilly humor and pointed political commentary come together in this tuneful romp that highlights Capp's indelible characters. There's dimwitted, muscle-bound Abner; his beautiful, loyal Daisy Mae; Mammy and Pappy Yokum, his crazed parents; and the singing clergyman, Marryin' Sam.
And let's not forget the Dogpatch ensemble, full of earthy folks with Dickensian names: Moonbeam McSwine, Earthquake McGoon and the voluptuous Appassionata von Climax, to name a few.
"Jubilation T. Cornpone," "The Country's in the Very Best of Hands" and "If I Had My Druthers" are three of the best songs in the score, which has been brought to the stage by music director Bill Dixon, choreographer Vicki Smith and director Nicole Roblyer, herself one of the most distinguished alumni of Bobbi Smith's vintage Talent Machine model from a decade ago.
Li'l Abner opens tomorrow and plays through two weekends, closing July 18. General admission tickets are $10, and $8 for children 7 and younger. For showtimes and ticket reservations, call the Talent Machine at 410-956-0512.
On July 30, the senior Talent Machinists take the stage for Pippin, the musical fable about the son of the great Western European emperor of the Middle Ages, Charlemagne.
But Pippin (usually spelled Pepin in the history books), while a medieval prince, bears a striking resemblance to contemporary youth searching desperately for their "Corner of the Sky," as the score puts it.
Egged on by Daddy, Grandpa and the ensemble, the young hero contemplates war, political activism, violence, hedonism and a spectacular suicide before finally coming to terms with love and commitment as the true paths to happiness.
Guiding Pippin through the various mazes of desire is the Leading Player, the diabolical song and dance character that brought Ben Vereen to national attention a generation or so back. "Magic to Do," "Simple Joys," "Right Track" and the rest of Stephen Schwartz's score proved irresistible in his hands.
Pippin will be performed at Key Auditorium July 30 to Aug. 15. Call 410-956-0512, or contact the company Web site for showtimes and ticket reservations.