By J. Scott Hill
The classic television series The Beverly Hillbillies was a popular hit during its original run, from 1962 to 1971, and has been a fixture in syndication ever since. The strangers-in-a-strange-land premise works because the country folk are neither stupid nor naive (except for the clueless Jethro Bodine), but are merely culturally ignorant of things that the Beverly Hills elite — and nearly everyone else — take for universal and mundane.
Like seemingly every other popular hit from classic television or modern romantic comedy, The Beverly Hillbillies has been adapted for the musical theatre stage. Unlike some shows with similar origins, this show’s creators managed to secure the rights to the original theme song.
The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical recently had its world premiere at Theatre at the Center just over the state line in Munster, Indiana. This is not high art, surely; but The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical never takes itself seriously enough to pretend to be anything but a fluffy, nostalgic diversion. The script by David Rogers and Amanda Rogers could easily pass for a multi-episode arc from the original series, with a rehash of the premise’s origin story tacked on the front. The songs, by Gregg Opelka, are pleasant yet largely forgettable (with the exception of the terrific “Mamma’s Boy,” a song sung by Percy, a character who was not part of the TV series).
Theatre at the Center’s set for The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical is lavishly done. Set Designer Ann N. Davis’s take on the Clampett’s country hovel is as rustic as her Clampett mansion is opulent.
The success of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical lies in the particular performances of the actors. Much of the credit here can go to Director David Perkovich. Perkovich let some of the actors get away with straight out impressions of the TV actors in the same roles, while other cast members developed their own takes on these familiar characters. Several of the actors in The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical are among the heavy hitters of Chicago’s musical-theatre scene: James Harms, Kelly Anne Clark, Norm Boucher, Summer Naomi Smart, and Bernie Yvon have been name-above-the-title stars in other musicals around town.
The ensemble is terrific. Summer Naomi Smart is perfect as the tomboy bombshell Elly May. John Stemberg’s height and build make him an excellent Jethro Bodine, as does his flawless take on Max Baer, Jr.’s delivery. Norm Boucher’s Milburn Drysdale is the consummate shyster.
Even though Kelly Anne Clark is much younger than Granny is, she plays the age convincingly. Cantankerous and crotchety, Clark’s take on granny is more quick spoken and acid tongued than Irene Ryan’s, but no less endearing.
The Beverly Hillbillies has always been chiefly about a man named Jed. James Harms, not unlike many of his fellow ensemble members here, is so far above his part that it is astonishing he took it. Then again, so was Buddy Ebsen. James Harms plays Jed Clampett as a gentle, thoughtful, and wise patriarch. If you have ever seen James Harms play Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha (and if you have ever seen a production of Man of La Mancha in the Chicago area, then you probably have seen James Harms in that role), then you already know that his name in the program means something wonderful will be happening onstage.
A fine ensemble led by James Harms through a pretty good script (given the iffy, if beloved, source material) provide some delicious, though exceptionally light, fare. The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical would benefit from more memorable songs, but is still far better than any reasonable theatregoer could expect.
(“The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical” runs through August, 10 at Theatre At The Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Indiana. 219-836-3255.)
* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical – Theatre At The Center – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago