To slightly paraphrase a familiar lyric from Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946): -Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay / My, oh my what a wonderful play! - Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III's bodacious original musical comedy Briarpatch re-introduces B'rer Rabbit and his four-legged furry buddies to 21st-century theatergoers. There is "[p]lenty of sunshine" in Wood's picaresque plot and his sprightly score, which blends live vocals with Wood's own lively instrumental accompaniment (prerecorded on his computer).
David Henderson is a delight as that consummate trickster and irrepressible braggart B'rer Rabbit; and Heather Shinpaugh is sweet as Mrs. Rabbit, the devoted wife and mother to Star, Foo Foo, and Fiona Rabbit (Leah Ferrell, Caitlin Raab, and Fiona Raab) - the loving family that B'rer Rabbit abandons when he flees the Briarpatch for the Big City after B'rer Turtle (Mike Raab) humiliates him by beating him in a down-home version of Aesop's Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare.
Mike Raab is a scream as the scrappy, thin-skinned, corncob-pipe-smoking B'rer Turtle; Janis K. Coville is suitably slinky - and scary - as city-cat chanteuse and nefarious nightclub owner Oonie Maroo; David Moore is funny as the tightly wound Reverend Beaver; Brian Scott contributes a lovely version of "Country" as Hound Dog; and Bob Martin is regal as King Lion.
But it is David Wood (B'rer Fox) and J.K. Ferrell (B'rer Bear) who steal the show with their outrageous antics as they chase B'rer Rabbit all over the Briarpatch, and even follow his cotton tail when he skedaddles to the Big City. (They perennially hope to bop the big-mouthed bunny and turn him into rabbit stew!) Ferrell and Wood are a classic comic duo, with much in common with roly-poly loud-mouth Ralph Cramden and impossibly limber know-it-all Ed Norton in the "The Honeymooners" television series. Ferrell makes B'rer Bear a gold-plated, four-door boob; and Wood amps the show's hilarity by making B'rer Fox a prissy, ultra-prickly, and ever-scheming straight man. Indeed, the slow burns and sulfurous glares of Wood's crisp comic characterization perfectly complement the glorious goofiness of Ferrell's antic impersonation of Briarpatch's ultimate dim bulb.
Scenic and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson not only crafts a versatile multilevel set and colorful backdrops for the show's Briarpatch and Big City segments, he also expertly manipulates his lighting instruments to keep the dramatic focus exactly were it should be. His wife, costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson, also enhances the action with an eye-pleasing assortment of colorful but sharply contrasting outfits for the country and city critters who reenact stories inspired by the Uncle Remus tales of Georgia writer Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908).
In Wood's madcap version of the B'rer Rabbit story cycle, which is cleverly choreographed by Matthew-Jason Willis, there is no Uncle Remus or any other offensive racial stereotype. The critters are generic Southern-fried verb busters, and there's no hint of the demeaning dialect that outraged so many critics of Walt Disney's Song of the South (1946) and made the movie unavailable for so many years.
For a little over two hours, Briarpatch will transport Triangle audiences to the "laughing place" discovered by Joel Chandler Harris when he heard and wrote down these timeless stories from the African-American storytelling tradition. A good time was had by all at the July 20 dress performance, which earned a standing ovation at its conclusion from an invited audience.
Note: The First Annual Briarpatch Craft and Music Fair, scheduled for 12-8 p.m. Sunday, July 23rd at Theatre in the Park, will go on and is open to the public; but the 3 p.m. performance of Briarpatch is SOLD OUT. On its web site, TIP notes that the fair is designed "... to celebrate the artistic accomplishments of Ira David Wood III and North 's largest nonprofit performing arts theater, Theatre in the Park.... The fair will be held in the lovely circle of cedars at the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, located in the northern end of Raleigh's scenic Pullen Park. Artists and Crafters will have booths set up by noon and will stay open through 8 p.m…. BBQ will be served in the garden, beginning at 5:30 ($8 per plate), and The Europa Jazz Quartet will take the stage from 5:30 to 8 p.m. The whole afternoon promises to be an exciting affair! Even if you're coming to another performance of Briarpatch, come for the Fair! Please Note: B'rer Pig will not be making an appearance."
Theatre in the Park presents Briarpatch Friday-Saturday, July 21-22, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 23, at 3 p.m. (SOLD OUT); Thursday-Saturday, July 27-29, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 30, at 3 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 3-4, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 5, at 3 p.m. in the Ira David Wood Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $28 ($18 children 12 and under and $24 seniors 55+). 919/831-6058 or via wetix at the presenter's site. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/. Walt Disney's Song of the South: http://www.songofthesouth.net/ (fan site) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038969/ (Internet Movie Database).