PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

The PopCulteer
March 12, 2010

Dogpatch Blues

One of the worst-kept secrets in town over the last few months has been the just-officially-announced “Reunion” production of the musical “Lil Abner” that is supposed to take place this fall. Kanawha Players, an organization that’s been dealing with some pressing money and organizational issues of late, has apparently signed on to stage this musical at the behest of Charleston’s Mayor, Danny Jones (right). Jones is putting up the money for the production, but there’s one big string attached.

Danny Jones wants to reprise his role as Lil’ Abner. A role he played on stage before….in 1986.

I believe that, by the time the projected play dates come around, our illustrious Mayor will be 60 years old. The title character of “Lil’ Abner” is supposed to be 18. Now this should just be a fun little news story about our goofy mayor and his latest misadventures, but it’s taken a darker turn, and I have a personal stake in it.

I found out about this potential train wreck because my significant other, Melanie Larch, played Daisy Mae, the female lead, in 1986. Melanie is proud of her part in the 1986 production, since it was the first of many lead roles she’s played on stage. Last year she was approached by Kanawha Players and declined any involvement with this production. Mel has too many personal and professional commitments right now, and doesn’t see any point in trying to relive the past. She also has severe misgivings about pitching this as a “reunion.”

“Lil’ Abner” was a lot of fun for Mel. She was singled out by reviewers as being one of the best things about the show. She’s very proud of her first leading role, but she had real doubts about trying to stage a reunion at this late date. Many of the principal players are deceased. Everyone has gotten older. Mel is fully aware that she has aged (gracefully, I would add) too much to reprise her role in any credible production. For the last few months she’s had to deal with her fear that her name would somehow be dragged into this project. She wants to see Kanawha Players rebound and thrive, but she’s afraid this production could do more harm than good to their reputation. She wants it to be clear that she is not involved with this show.

Melanie is one of Charleston’s top stage performers, having appeared in lead and featured roles in everything from “Little Shop Of Horrors,” to “Carmen,” to “Jack The Ripper.” She’s worked with everyone from Kanawha Players to The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra to The Charleston Stage Company and The Charleston Light Opera Guild. Recently she’s been enjoying her time with The Contemporary Youth Arts Company, with whom she is currently gearing up for a role in “Romeo and Juliet.”

She’s very proud of what she’s accomplished and wouldn’t want to do anything to tarnish her past achievements. So Melanie declined to participate in this “reunion.” I’ve been told that January Johnson-Wolfe, the original choreographer, was also approached and also declined any involvement.

Mel has very warm feelings for Kanawha Players. Even though she made it clear to KP that she would not participate in this production, she decided to keep her concerns and doubts to herself, so that it wouldn’t reflect poorly on the organization.

However, this week, now that the cat’s out of the bag, KP has committed a major faux pas. Without bothering to check with Melanie, they released photos of her with our mayor from the 1986 production to promote the “preview” performance of the show that they’re doing for the Haiti benefit this weekend. This is a blatant misrepresentation. Melanie is not involved at all in this show.

For the record, she’d love to see KP try a fresh take on “Lil’ Abner” with an all-new (appropriately-aged) cast, but thinks it’s unrealistic to hog the stage and play a teenager when you’re old enough to be the character’s grandparent. It was rather distressing for her to see her image used, with no warning, to promote something she’d passed on.

(And as an aside to the Daily Mail: This was front-page news? Really? I mean….really?)

It’s simply wrong for KP to use photographs of Melanie from the old production when they know full well that she isn’t going to be involved with this new production of the show. It’s deceptive, and it could mislead people into thinking Melanie will be on stage, or even endorses this “reunion.”

Kanawha Players is crossing a line when they call this a “reunion.” It’s not. You can’t do a reunion of a show when the original female lead is not involved and the second female lead is dead. KP should stop referring to this as a reunion, and they should stop using Melanie’s image and reputation to try and sell it. That’s dishonest marketing. If they want to be honest they should bill it as “Danny Jones’ return to the stage.”

Jones claims that he’s doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He heard about KP’s money trouble and wanted to help. If he really wanted to help, he’d just cut them a check for twenty-five grand, instead of using it to finance a show that will only make money if enough folks in town are so overcome by morbid curiosity that they go to see it for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure he can get KP a deal on the rent of the Civic Center, but it’s questionable that he can fill it up for three weekends.

I understand that our mayor had a wonderful time doing this show nearly a quarter-century ago, but there are limits to how far you can go to relive the past. If he missed everybody so much, he should have had a reunion cookout. Danny’s a nice enough guy. He’s done some great things for Charleston. It’s doubtful that we’d have FestivAll if not for his support and encouragement. I don’t want this to seem like I’m joining the chorus of people who just like to dump on him.

“Lil’ Abner,” the classic musical based on Al Capp’s successful comic strip, was a big party for him, among the best moments of his life–I get that. However, there are a lot of 60-year-old guys who really enjoyed playing football. You don’t see them buying a team just so they can take the field and play again.

As it is, Jones is just providing fuel for his critics. His recent behavior with the Charleston Area Alliance has left the impression that he’s petty and vindictive and maybe just a little bit divorced from reality, and his delusions about being able to reprise this role have not improved the perception of him as an erratic attention-seeking loose cannon at all. Image-wise, he couldn’t make a stupider move. He’s done so much good for this city that it’s a shame to see him run around acting like a cartoon of himself.

This is a lose-lose situation. The best possible thing that could come out of this would be that Mayor Jones will surprise everyone and deliver an amazing and convincing performance….as a dim-witted muscle-bound yokel. That’s hardly going to do anything to boost the reputation of West Virginia’s largest city. I dread the possibility that the national media would glom onto this story.

The saddest thing about this whole situation is that the people who are involved will tell you upfront that it’s going to be a disaster because Jones is way too old to play the lead, but Kanawha Players is going to go ahead with it because Danny Jones is footing the bill and they’re going to use it as a fund raiser.

Now it could be that the folks at KP are playing a clever game of lowered expectations. At the rate they’re talking down this production, if Jones manages to not break a hip during the run, it’ll be considered a moral victory. The board at KP needs to ask themselves if it’s worth it to risk the reputation of this long-lived Charleston cultural institution by renting themselves out to put on a vanity production for any wealthy donor who comes along with enough cash.

There is a way for everyone involved to save face. If, after the benefit performance this Sunday, Mayor Jones has a sudden epiphany about how ridiculous the idea of him playing Abner is, and if he decides to finance a new production of “Lll’ Abner” with a new Abner and Daisy Mae….and maybe Mayor Jones in the more appropriate role of General Bullmoose, then this could work out well. More people would pay to see a realistically-cast version of this entertaining little show than would pay to see a sad display of someone trying to recapture a former glory.

I hate to see KP derail what has become a major creative comeback. I raved about their recent production of “12 Angry Men,” and I think their night of Avante-Garde theater and art was one of the most exciting events I attended last year. They are still in a precarious position due to lawsuits and other issues. I hate to see them have to resort to such mercenary measures as this in order to stay afloat.

RFC Stars Live On Stage.

If you want to see some of the performers that you’ve enjoyed on Radio Free Charleston perform live, then this weekend you’ll have plenty of chances.

Friday night you can catch Lady D’s remarkable tribute to Bessie Smith at 7:30 PM at the Women’s Club of Charleston, 1600 Virginia St. E. Admission is $25 and includes a buffet dinner. Call 304-590-1042 for more information.

That same night you can make the rounds to catch several RFC faves at local bars: The Scrap Iron Pickers will be at The Empty Glass in support of Treasure Cat and Satchell. Brain Trauma and Friends will be at The Blue Parrot. Future RFC guests, Buckstone, will appear at Bruno’s. Steve Himes Connection (you saw them backing up Marcie Bullock) will be at Sam’s Uptown Cafe. And finally, our most recent guests, Mother Nang, will be playing at The Boulevard Tavern. All shows are advertised to start at 10 PM (wink, wink) except for the Bruno’s show, which will start at 9 PM. Cover charges range from nothin’ to somethin’.

Saturday night Ric Cochran and friends, will be at The Bridge Road Bistro (no cover) at 7:30 PM, while Civil State will be at The Blue Parrot at 10 PM ($5). The Diablo Blues Band will be at The Boulevard Tavern at 10 PM, I’m not sure of the cover charge, but I’m guessing it’ll be five dollars or less.

Young Auteurs On The Loose.

Friday night at 7 PM three student films will premiere at The Capitol Center Theater: Jan Bezouska’s “Clockdown,” Miriam Kajamovitz’ “Diary Of An Aching Heart,” and Michael Sydenstricker’s “Provident.” In addition to the scheduled films, there may be an extra trailer or two. After the screening, a gathering of filmmakers and audience will take place at Capitol Roasters, across the street.

The Adventure Team Is Back, And They’re Small!

The Adventure Team is almost here! The Official GI Joe Collector’s Club will be offering an assortment of 3 3/4-inch Adventure Team figure sets, all utilizing retro sculpts. Each figure comes packaged with a special accessory (vehicle, etc.) inside an “AT Mission Crate” package. Once you open the “AT Mission Crate,” you’ll find each figure on its own individual blister card. The first three sets are: AT Air Adventurer & Helicopter; AT Land Adventurer & 6-wheel ATV; Dr. “Venom” & AT Commander with giant man-eating plant. This is the first time that the classic Kung Fu Grip Era GI Joe will be produced in the 1980s-style 3 3/4-inch scale. Click here for info on how to join the club and get these way-cool action figures.

Cool Comic Of The Week

IDW, in their monthly title, Starstruck, is re-presenting a lost classic of science-fiction comics. This title, created by Elaine Lee, with gorgeous artwork by Mike Kaluta, started life as an off-Broadway stage play in 1980, written by Lee with Norfleet Lee and Dale Place. The play featured designs by Kaluta, and was staged again in 1983.

Lee and Kaluta first adapted it into comic form in 1982 for Heavy Metal.

This is where the rather convoluted publishing history of Starstruck begins. That series was reprinted in 1984 by Epic comics, who then followed it up with a six-issue mini-series. Lee and Kaluta would later re-print this work in a series with added material, as “Starstruck: The Expanding Universe,” published by Dark Horse Comics in 4 issues marked as “Volume 1”. At the time Dark Horse had planned to add 8 more issues  consisting of 320 pages of new material with older material, unfortunately those plans fell through.

A related series of stories starring the “Galactic Girl Guides” appeared as back-up strips in Dave Steven’s “The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine” from Comico Comics in the late 1980s.

Starstruck is set in a bizarre alternative future. Billed as a space opera, Starstruck follows the offspring of two powerful houses as they vie for wealth and dominance in a universe that is newly freed from the Incorporated Elysian Republic. Populated by characters such as Baron Bajar and his son Kalif and daughter Lucrezia, the story recalls Shakespeare, if he’d collaborated with Douglas Adams.

Lee’s complex story makes for a very rewarding comic-reading experience. The visuals are beautiful, thanks to Kaluta’s art, but Lee’s story provides more than simple eye candy. There are strong female characters, exotic settings and lots of alien landscapes on which to play.

The Galactic Girl Guides stories, of which two-thirds are previously unpublished, features Kaluta’s pencils inked by accalimed fantasy artist Charles Vess. These are stories of the childhood adventures of Brucilla, a major player in the series.

Starstruck is scheduled to run 13 issues, which will finally collect the entire series, which was scattered throughout several different published incarnations. I’m certain that IDW will collect these stories into deluxe hardcovers and affordable softcovers at some point. In addition to the newly-expanded artwork and previously-unseen Galactic Girl Guides stories, each issue is packed with text features that provide extra background material.

Lee and Kaluta’s Starstruck is a singular comic book experience. It’s taken almost thirty years to present it in a form that it deserves, but it’s worth the wait. This is good stuff.

Next Week in PopCult

You know the drill. Sunday Videos, Monday Art, Friday PopCulteer. Possibly a follow-up to our lead story from today, if I’m still allowed in the city.