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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 12, 2009

Going Out for comic relief:
Characters “well drawn and sill” act like a tonic in hard times

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — As the country heads for another depression, comic characters created in the Great Depression of the 1930s are here to entertain and, with satiric wit, inform.

The Guilderland Players this week are putting on Li’l Abner, a musical first produced in the 1950s based on Al Capp’s comic strip that debuted in 1934 and ran until 1977. The strip peaked in the 1940s when more than a third of all Americans — 70 million people — read it.

The play is set in Appalachia, in a tiny town named Dogpatch. The townsfolk, portrayed with broad satire, are poor but buoyant — their clothes are torn and patched, but colorfully so.

“The country’s in the very best of hands,” sings the cast in an old-fashioned foot-stomping number delivered with panache. And, typical of the play, the audience can take it on at least two levels.

Surely, it’s satiric, as we’ve just witnessed scenes of government corruption and incompetence. But, then, it’s also just a lot of fun to watch, and radiates a feel-good aura that comes with upbeat music, swirling skirts, and upraised hands.

The creator of the hillbilly characters started out as poor himself. Capp was born in 1909 to natives of Latvia — Otto and Matilda Caplin. “Their fathers had found that the great promise of America was true — it was no crime to be a Jew,” Capp wrote.

His family was poor, though, and his young life was difficult. A trolley accident took his left leg when he was 9.

“The secret of how to live without resentment or embarrassment in a world in which I was different from everyone else was to be indifferent to that difference,” Capp wrote in 1960.

That perspective may have been what led Capp to create characters that were laughable but, at the same time, forced the reader to question some basic assumptions of American society.

The play’s themes, featuring a corrupt capitalist and a long-held way of life facing extinction, certainly reverberate in today’s America.

“Characters well-drawn and silly”

Director Andy Maycock says he wanted to produce Li’l Abner since he first started directing the Guilderland Players a dozen years ago. “The characters were so well drawn and so silly, I thought, if I screw up, at least it’s still funny.” The committee making play selections, though, talked him into doing Once Upon a Mattress instead.

Maycock says now he was glad for that experience. “I learned a lot about how to talk to kids about making things funny out of thin air,” he said.

He credits the current cast with bringing life and depth to the one-dimensional cartoon characters in Li’l Abner.

“Earthquake is still a hulking pest,” he says in his director’s notes about the character played by Josh Palagyi, “but there’s something charming and harmless about him here. “Daisy,” he says of the female lead, played by Gabriella Vega, “is still sweet and youthful, but she’s not going to take any attitude from anybody.”

”The gist of it is,” Maycock says, explaining the plot, “Daisy Mae is still trying to catch Abner at the Sadie Hawkins race. The men just aren’t into marriage. Every year, Abner slows down so she can catch him but then, at the last minute, he takes off with a brilliant burst of speed.”

The plot thickens when the United States government, looking for a place for atomic testing, determines Dogpatch is “the most unnecessary, no-account” place in the entire United States.

Senator Jack S. Phogbound shows up to tell the Dogpatchers they’ll be bought out. “He works them up into a lather,” says Maycock.

They’ll get a reprieve only if they find something necessary in Dogpatch.

“Abner’s mother has a body-building tonic that grows out of a tree,” relates Maycock. That’s how she raised such a strapping son.

A scrawny scientist drinks the tonic by accident and miraculously turns into a muscle-bound Goliath. “The town is off the chopping block,” says Maycock. “General Bullmoose offers Abner a million dollars for the tonic but he has already promised it to the president, free of charge.”

Bullmoose then schemes to have Abner caught by his girlfriend, Appassionata Von Climax, in the Sadie Hawkins race. He plans to kill Abner off and then she’ll give him the tonic.”

All that happens in the first act. The best-laid plans unravel in the second act and, concludes Maycock, “Of course, there’s a wonderful, happy ending.”

Talented cast

Steve Frey plays the title role. “He’s very charming, with great broad shoulders and a really nice smile,” says Maycock. A senior, Frey has had parts in other Guilderland Players’ musicals like Hello, Dolly! and Damn Yankees. “He always looked smooth,” says Maycock of Frey’s dancing, “when the other guys were looking at their feet or distraught.”

Frey plays the good-hearted, simple-minded Abner with a sense of innocent sweetness, which makes the satire stronger. For instance, when he travels to Washington, D.C., his good-natured faith in the government points up the flaws.

Vega’s Daisy Mae is fluid and resilient. “She’s just a great, great kid,” said Maycock of Vega, who is also a senior. “When she was in the ensemble in Damn Yankees, her face would jump off the stage. She has such expressive eyes...She knows how to play a cartoon character that has what all the guys want.”

Jeremy Simon, whom Maycock describes as “a natural-born leader”, plays Marryin’ Sam. He goes on to describe Simon’s real-life personality, “He sings in choir, he’s president of a club, he’s a kid that people look up to. Therefore, he’s a little bit serious,” says Maycock.

Simon plays the part of Dogpatch’s preacher. “For a two-dollar wedding, he’s wrestle all the guests; for a three-dollar weeding, he’ll tell some off-color jokes,” says Maycock.

Bob Oates, the show’s choreographer, advised having Simon watch The Music Man so he could emulate a confident fast-talking con man but, says, Maycock, that turned out not to be necessary. “He just came to it naturally. He’s really the lead character, because he brings things together; he also has the most songs.”

Nick Brigadier plays General Bullmoose, the capitalist swindler. He lives by the slogan, “What's good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA” — a spoof on an actual statement about General Motors.

Maycock says of Brigadier, “In the fall, he played an Irish tenor revealed to be a Brooklyn policeman, who turned out to be a Gestapo agent.” Brigadier mastered three different accents for the part.

“He comes up with things that are 10 times funnier than what I give him,” says Maycock. “He’s much funnier than I am. I was telling Speedy McRabbit, ‘You can’t just speak like a Guilderland kid.’ Nick came up with a brogue with hillbilly to it.”

Gabby Formica plays the part of Mammy, Abner’s pipe-smoking mother. “She’s the strong, bossy mother type,” Maycock says of Mammy's character. Formica was creative in developing the part and making it her own, he says.

“The first couple of weeks of rehearsal, she was asking me, ‘What do you think of this walk?’ She test drove four or five, and ended up with a stooped, bow-legged shuffle. It’s perfect.” The walk is accented by her red-and-white striped stockings.

Josh Palagyi plays Earthquake McGoon, the world’s dirtiest wrestler. “No cheap shot is too cheap,” says Maycock. “He told me he didn’t need a microphone. And he doesn’t,” says Maycock. “He’s brimming with power.”

Like a tonic?

The humor in the Guilderland Players’ production flows as fluidly as the music. Kerry Dineen, Pine Bush Elementary School’s music teacher, is the musical director. The pit orchestra adds depth and richness to the production.

A ballet that acts out the Sadie Hawkins race is particularly stunning.

While much of the humor rooted in 1930’s themes — particularly the political and economic satire — is breathtakingly relevant today, some modern references (to Denny’s restaurant or to the Albany-based law firm of Martin, Harding, and Mazzotti) have been inserted as well.

Other satire — on standards of masculinity, for example — is timeless. The Guilderland actors during a recent rehearsal looked like they were having a great deal of fun as they played the part of human guinea pigs, volunteers from Dogpatch, trying out Mammy’s tonic in a government test. A scrawny kid entered on one side of the giant golden machine and a muscle-bound young man emerged from the other.

The show, says Maycock, is good for the whole family. “Little kids will like it,” he says, “because it’s funny. Nothing is really objectionable. And it will appeal to older people who know the comic strip.”


The play opens on the Guilderland High School stage today, March 12, at 7 p.m. It plays Friday and Saturday, March 13 and 14, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 15, at 2 p.m.

Tickets cost $7 at the door.

The high school is located at 8 School Road, off of Route 146 in Guilderland Center.

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