`Li'l Abner' cast is mighty fine

Hillbillies: Talent Machine makes musical fun.


July 15, 2004|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Nobody is going to mistake Broadway's version of cartoonist Al Capp's comic strip Li'l Abner for a classic of the American musical stage.

But the characters from Dogpatch, Capp's hillbilly hamlet, are as bright and fun as the show's tuneful 1950s score. When Abner, his ever-loyal Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, the singing clergyman Marryin' Sam and the rest of the Dogpatchers come together to stomp with high kickin' abandon, the results can be mighty pleasin' indeed.

That is assuredly the case at Key Auditorium on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis, where the Talent Machine has revved into high gear under the direction of Nicole Roblyer and choreographer Vicki Smith. In the Talent Machine tradition, the kids capture the show's energy from start to end. Ensemble numbers such as the "Sadie Hawkins Ballet" - in which the girls with matrimony on their minds chase down their fellas - bristle with pizazz, as does "Jubilation T. Cornpone," Marryin' Sam's spirited salute to the Confederacy's least competent general.

Roblyer and music director Bill Dixon have been learnin' the young 'uns their notes as well, which is admirable because pitch and overall accuracy haven't always been the priority in past Talent Machine productions. But this time around, Abner's buddies are in control of their harmonies in the lazy "If I Had My Druthers," while the girls in General Bullmoose's entourage are note-perfect in their tributes to their capitalist leader. Both spots are often fudged when adults are doing the singing, so bravo to the kids.

Sam Edgerly, a ninth-grader at Arundel High School, is a perfect Abner with his handsome face, sure-footed musicality and flair for comedy. (Good looks obviously run in the Edgerly family. Sam's sister Kelsea is aptly cast as Stupefyin' Jones, the bombshell who can stop any man dead in his tracks.)

Abner is matched with a lovely Daisy Mae in Lauren Behringer, who is the picture of innocence and can also put over a song. If she could mix a little more of Daisy's character into her singing voice, she'd be well-nigh perfect.

Max Kalifut, a 12-year-old Talent Machine rookie, can be commended on two counts: first for dominating the big numbers so confidently as Marryin' Sam and, second, for mixing vocal registers ingeniously enough to keep the melodies coming, even though some of the notes are too low for his voice.

Katie Pajerowski and Kyle Van Zandt are suitably feisty as Mammy and Pappy Yokum, and there are excellent bits from Sean Harding as the poetically named wrassler Earthquake McGoon, and 14-year-old Taylor Rector, who mugs hilariously as Appassionata von Climax.

Alas, the sound system was temperamental Saturday, cutting in and out and adding a grating, metallic air to the voices of children massed on stage. The kids and the audience deserved better.

Li'l Abner may be a piece of fluff, but with songs like "The Country's In the Very Best of Hands," Sam's and Abner's pointed commentary on doings in the nation's capital, and "Oh, Happy Day," an ode to genetic engineering sung by the scientists out to create an entire race of muscle-bound, dimwitted Abners, one can't help but marvel at the great cartoonists who worked so much of the human condition into their unpretentious daily drawings.

Li'l Abner plays at Key Auditorium on the campus of St. John's College through Sunday. For show times and ticket reservations, call 410-956-0512.

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