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When I first looked at the program last night, I thought for a moment the Ivy League had revived Spring football. John Hoffman, Bill Grana, Tom Stephenson, Bob Stringer and John Hartranft populate my personal pantheon of grid heroes, not thespians.
But when further perusal of the cast revealed such players as Fredrica Mann, Ciji Ware, and Suzy Dimmitt I began to suspect that this was a far better team than usually wears the Crimson.
My suspicions were quickly confirmed. From the opening notes of the overture it was clear that this year's Winthrop House Musical, Li'l Abner, was going to be much more memorable and merry than the Yale Game. It was better, in fact, than the usually fine shows for which Winthrop has become famous. Li'l Abner is something else; it is one of the all time greats.
The cast is so large, the production so elaborate, the touches of excellence so frequent that it is hard to decide whom to applaud first. But despite the strength of some individual performances director Ruffin Cooper, musical director David Nelson, and producer Sam Lewis are perhaps most deserving of praise.
Director Cooper has taken what easily could have been an unmitigated disaster on a House stage and produced a finely integrated whole. His show does more than hang together, however; it jumps, it bounces, it swings with an exuberance that lasts throughout the evening. Dogpatch is not merely put on the stage for us to look and laugh at. Mr. Cooper has created a Dogpatch--a live, wonderfully human community of real people whose warmth goes beyond the curtains to envelop the audience.
All this is remarkable because Mr. Cooper has so many people in his Dogpatch. More than forty characters parade across the stage, all of them in splashy, comic strip costumes. Only a few mistakes could have produced a traffic jam as embarrassing as the one expected at the World's Fair. But there is no congestion, and Mr. Cooper has succeeded in making Al Capp's Dogpatchers more than a collection of slightly improbable freaks.
Just as important to the success of the show as Mr. Cooper's pace and blocking is the spirit and harmony injected by musical director Nelson. By now one expects good things from Mr. Nelson, and last night he was at his best.
Mr. Cooper and Mr. Nelson were able to achieve their successes partially because of the technical wonderland developed by producer Lewis. Special effects advance rather than steal the show, and the clever sets of Tom Doherty and Scott McCausland complement instead of compete with the actors.
The commanding figure of the evening was clearly Paul Hoffman, whose Abner was butchy, lovable, and believable. Although a bit stiff now and then, he displayed a grace and skill that surpassed his All-Ivy performances as a guard last fall. Another compelling character was Curt von Kann's Marrin' Sam. Like Mr. Hoffman, Mr. von Kann looked the part, and he played unerringly on its many humorous possibilities.
But when it comes to looking, most eyes spent the majority of the time gazing at the story-book shape of Fredrica Mann. Miss Mann, as voluptuous as Al Capp's pictures, lacked the voice and expression to hold her own against Mr. Hoffman, but her presence on stage never detracted from the festivities.
As is often the case, however, the supporting actors often outshone the stars. Ciji Ware as Appassionata von Climax was her usual totally arresting and overwhelmingly sensuous self. Suzy Dimmitt was quite electrifying as Stupefyin' Jones, making the loss of the Old Howard seem lass tragic. Evil Eye Fleagle Max Byrd threatened to steal the show everytime he appeared just by standing around with his incredibly plastic face; when he talked and threw whammies around even Mammy Yokum, superbly played by Susan Medcalf, was overwhelmed.
And, of course, there was the usual Winthrop collection of outstanding chorus girls in delightfully scanty dress. Choreographer Bob Walsh put les girls and such unlikely dancers as Bill Grana through some well coordinated and highly effective production numbers. Only the Sadie Hawkins' Day chase disappointed.
Altogether Li'l Abner at Winthrop is a triple whammy of a show. About the only unpleasant comment I can make is that the remaining performances are nearly sold out. The cast really should consider extending the run.
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