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There has never been anything quite like Kudzu, the moderately entertaining but entirely inconsequential new comic strip-based musical about a collection of hicks trying to save their benighted backwater of a town. Unless, of course, you count Li’l Abner, the moderately entertaining but entirely inconsequential old comic strip-based musical about a collection of hicks trying to save their benighted backwater of a town.
Okay, so the kids in Kudzu aren’t battling a government intent on turning their beloved Bypass”a place so backwards even the Episcopalians handle snakes”into a nuclear testing range. Theirs, in fact, is a home-grown bad guy: Big Bubba Tadsworth, the greedy developer who wants to get control of the title character’s weed-choked ancestral gas station so his evil Asian-investor cohorts (referred to, for whatever politically incorrect reason, as “the Kabuki brothers of Kyoto, Japan”) can build an American flag factory. Or so he says.
But both plots turn on a home-grown secret weapon: In Li’l Abner, it’s Mammy Yokum’s Yokumberry Tonic, while in Kudzu, it’s…well, that would be telling, and it doesn’t make much sense anyway. And both feature appropriately cartoonish characters: Li’l Abner’s lineup boasts the wicked Evil Eye Fleagle, the good-hearted local cleric Marryin’ Sam, and the scheming confidential secretary Appassionata von Climax, besides the dumb-hunky title character. Kudzu’s crop includes the unfortunately earthbound basketballer-wannabe Nasal T. Lardbottom, the unscrupulous local cleric Will B. Dunn, and the lovely but painfully shallow BMW-driving majorette Veranda Tadsworth, besides the dumb-hunky title character.
Li’l Abner, however, is mildly diverting. And it has gutsor at least a character with enough of them to plot murder to get what she wants. (Kudzu’s far too mild-mannered; the meanest creature in Bypass is an unruly vine, which, come to think of it, actually winds up saving the day in the Big Final Confrontation.) And as far as I’m aware, Li’l Abner creator Al Capp never cited Faulkner as inspiration in pretentiously windy program notes.
Said notes, by the way, compare musical theater writing to cartooning, but the play ignores their pontifications: “You must be economical, spare, lean, and incisive….Every word and phrase must advance plot or illuminate character or be cut.” Oh yeah? Then why does so much of this aimless production seem like flab? “We’re Your Mamas,” in particular: It’s a cute number, yes, rousing and showoffy for the two women who sing it, but it has obviously been shoehorned into the plot. The borderline-offensive “Karaoke Saturday Night””My name is Yamamoto/I’m here to take your photo” is the wittiest of its lyricsat least bears a little relation to the scene it’s stuck in, but it’s a loser of a tune, and it doesn’t take the story anywhere.
It’s not that Kudzu’s actively awful. Doug Marlette’s hero, a fatherless teen with writerly aspirations, is as appealing as a retriever puppy and nearly as eager to please. The bandBland Simpson and his Red Clay Ramblersisn’t bad, and half the songs are just darlin’. (The yearning “Duet for One,” bittersweet “Hey, Earl,” and tender “Home” are the best, along with that aforementioned attitudinal maternal duet, and there’s a cute little Raymond Chandler parody written into “Story Song.”) But the other half? Deadly. “The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways” and “City on the Hill” are real clunkers; the rest are chiefly forgettable.
Director Lisa Portes stages Kudzu’s world premiere at Ford’s Theatre with no little energy, but she opts for the cheap laugh as often as notat her most unforgivable, she puts one actress on a trampoline just so the audience can howl as her oversize bosom bounces along to the upbeat “Air Nasal.” James Ludwig is aw-shucks cute as the loose-limbed doofus of a title character; he’s winning throughout, but his best moment comes in a jelly-legged tango he dances with a suddenly seductive Veranda. And surely there’s something to be said for a musical that sends its female leada winsome, clear-voiced Nicole Bradin as Mike, a grease monkey who pines desperately for the oblivious Kudzuoff to Manhattan to teach “Auto Mechanics for Women at the New School.”
But the truth is, enthusiasm and the occasional flash of actorly charm can’t save a show that hinges on a Buddha-ex-machina gimmick that drops out of the sky just minutes before the final curtain. Ultimately, Kudzu’s as undercooked and unsatisfying as instant grits.CP