Reviewing community theater is never an easy thing. Do you apply the same standards as you would to professional theater? Or do you adjust those standards, always keeping in mind that community theater exists because of a cast and crew of dedicated, enthusiastic volunteers? In the case of Lake City Playhouse, it's a hard call. It makes one think of the film Waiting for Guffman and how hard everyone's working to make the show happen. At Lake City, it's obvious that cast, crew and management are enthusiastically hustling to produce the best theater they possibly can. And while Lake City Playhouse has had some rousing successes over the past couple seasons, sometimes, as in the case of their current production of Li'l Abner, it just falls short of the mark.
Based on characters created by cartoonist Al Capp, written by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama with lyrics and music by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul, L'il Abner has long been a part of the American pop cultural consciousness. Daisy Mae, Li'l Abner and the unfortunate Scragg family are as familiar to many theatergoers as Little Orphan Annie. And what high school doesn't have a Sadie Hawkins Dance, named in honor of the man-chasing Sadie Hawkins Day Race from Li'l Abner?
Candace Deaton plays the curvaceous, vivacious Daisy Mae. Her voice was strong, with a bit of comic growl in her musical numbers, and she shows potential as a good comedic actress. Here, however, she seems miscast. Daisy Mae is supposed to be a 17-year-old girl, and Deaton appears to be much older. Her more mature persona makes the character come off as more Mae West than Daisy Mae. In a similar vein, Ben Betts looked the part of Li'l Abner, but he wasn't always able to sing it. He had the loping, lazy, hillbilly charm of Li'l Abner down pat, but his singing voice lacked the strength and surety needed for the lead.
Speaking of singing, the musical element is one area in which the theatrical cake could use more time in the oven. In some ensemble scenes, the cast seemed uncertain as to what lyrics they were singing, and some members could be seen watching their feet in the dance numbers.
Director Sandy Gookin should be credited for shaking up the status quo in her casting. Two typically male roles, those of Dr. Rasmussent T. Finsdale and the President (of the United States) were both filled by women, Jesi Gaboury and Ariel Gimlin, respectively. Gookin also cast two kids (Kasey O'Brien and Paul Michael Banducci) in the typically older adult roles of Mammy and Pappy Yokum. O'Brien and Banducci put a lot of energy into their roles, but their undeniable youth proved to be ultimately too distracting.
The aforementioned Gaboury (who also served as assistant director on this production) had plenty of stage presence (too much, at times), and Shannon Cord, as Appassionata Von Climax, played her red-wigged caricature role with all the campy, vampy va-va-voom of Jessica Rabbit. Also deserving mention is Keenan R. Bianchi, nerdily cute as Available Jones, with his owlish Harry Potter glasses, pale skin and oversized jacket. Marryin' Sam (Mike Grabenstein) could use a lighter hand with the makeup.
Li'l Abner had its moments, however, many of them in the details. A nice bit of straw-in-mouth choreography in "If I Had My Druthers" was fun to watch, and while the occasional rapping segment and one bit of Austin Powers' inspired mugging didn't work for me, seeing a boxed Chia pet on stage during one scene did.