Literary types might claim no American family is more famous (or beloved) for making the trek from an impoverished part of the United States to that land of plenty known as California than the Dust Bowl-era Joads of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Pop culture aficionados might beg to differ. They would make the case for the Clampett clan, that backwoods mountain family (probably hailing from the Ozarks), who inadvertently strike oil on their land, become instant multi-millionaires and are quickly transplanted to Beverly Hills, where they become a prime catalyst for comic culture clash.
The hit television series devised by Paul Henning, which ran on CBS from 1962 to 1971, has now been turned into “The Beverly Hillbillies, The Musical,” with a high-spirited score by Chicago composer Gregg Opelka, and a book by David Rogers and his daughter, Amanda Rogers. And it is currently receiving an elaborate world premiere at Theatre at the Center in Munster, where director David Perkovich (expertly backed by musical director William Underwood and choreographer Nicole Miller) has assembled an ideal cast to embody the story’s iconic characters.
Is it all sitcom silliness, loopy farce and broad humor? Without question. But the musical also has a distinct charm rooted in the sense that, for better and for worse, people are shaped by the place they call home, and home is where the heart — and the smarts — are.
A deft little hint of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” Henning’s infectious theme song from the TV series, reassuringly echoes in the musical’s overture. But from there on we head straight into Opelka’s tuneful score, which moves from stomps and waltzes to deft homages to Broadway shows featuring tomboy-cute, sharpshooting heroines, conniving she-devils, long-suffering secretaries and all the rest.
The “founding myth” is quickly established, and a Joad-like truck trip is neatly finessed before the transplant becomes a reality thanks to set designer Ann N. Davis’ grand-scale mansion, and Brenda Winstead’s lavish costumes. Then come the inevitable miscommunications and zany adaptations to the manners and mores of a radically new environment (including things like fishing in a swimming pool and reeling in nothing but a bikini bathing suit bra), plus, most crucially, an attempted swindle.
Leading the cast are such hugely gifted and appealing performers as the willowy James Harms (as guileless, warm-hearted patriarch Jed Clampett), sprightly, lovable Kelly Anne Clark (as feisty, homesick Granny) and eye-popping Summer Naomi Smart (as that blithely wide-eyed man-magnet Elly May). But every supporting character also is perfectly on target with Norm Boucher as Milburn Drysdale, the ever-nervous banker to the super-rich; Holly Stauder as his snobby wife; Tina Gluschenko as his overlooked Gal Friday; John Stemberg as Elly May’s brawny, pea-brained cousin and girl magnet, Jethro; Bernie Yvon and Colette Todd as a pair of grifters hellbent on usurping the Clampetts’ millions; Patrick Tierney as the classic mama’s boy, and a slew of others.
The show would benefit greatly from a 15-minute trim. But watching the various moments in which Harms, Clark, Smart and David Sajewich (as Elly May’s detective boyfriend) dance is alone worth the price of admission in this show that has its own sweet Mountain Dew kick.