In the revival of “The Robber Bridegroom,” a bluegrass musical folk tale, there are two sides to the character played by Steven Pasquale, an 18th century Mississippi Robin Hood – both a Southern gentleman and a masked bandit — who falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a wealthy planter.
The production that has opened at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater has two sides as well.
There is the tunefully twangy if dated story theater side. The 40-year-old show initially opened on Broadway starring Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone, and then reopened a year later with a different cast, snagging a Tony Award for Barry Bostwick. Pulitzer-winning playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) wrote the book and lyrics, based on a story by beloved Southern novelist Eudora Welty that was itself based on a fairytale from the Brothers Grimm mixed with tall tales and legendary characters from Welty’s native Mississippi.
Then the other side of this “Robber Bridegroom” is the “fun” production. “My feelings about The Robber Bridegroom boil down to one simple word: fun,” writes Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theater. He promises that “the actors and musicians onstage are having as good of a time performing as you’ll have watching them.”
Actually the actors and musicians occasionally seem to be having more fun performing than some of us do watching, given the actors’ penchant for breaking character, unable to stifle their laughter at their own cleverness and crotch jokes.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
Director Alex Timbers borrows from a couple of his previous productions. From “Peter and the Starcatcher,” he takes the aesthetic of children’s storybook as makeshift make-believe – the feeling of “let’s put on a play using what we have in the attic.” In the Peter Pan musical, this was expressed primarily by some inventive stage design. Timbers brings over many of the same designers (including scenic designer Donyale Werle), but he adds to his production of “Robber Bridegroom” an informal performance style, which is established from the get-go, when some of the actors chat with members of the audience as they walk down the aisle to begin the show. Once they gather on stage, modern-day troubadours about to serenade us with an old folk tale, they smile widely at one another, as if sharing a private joke.
But Timbers also took the concept of Sexypants from “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” in which Benjamin Walker was marketed for his sexiness, and dressed in tight pants. “The Robber Bridegroom” does the same with Steven Pasquale, who most recently established his sensuousness on Broadway in “The Bridges of Madison County.” (albeit not in his current TV turn as Mark Fuhrman in The People vs. O.J. Simpson on FX.) But this show goes further that Starcatcher; there was a lingering moment at the performance I attended in which Leslie Kritzer unsubtly suggested imminent fellatio – one of the several moments that the people on stage seemed to find so hilarious that the show stopped dead.
Such incidents of boundary-breaking supposed spontaneity do not enhance an entertainment that usually drapes its bawdy heart more carefully in its homespun crazy quilt of folksy music, fanciful characters, and a Shakespearean-like convoluted plot involving mistaken identity. As the Bandit in the Woods, Jamie Lockhart (Pasquale) robs the fancy new blue dress, and all the gold-laced undergarments, off of beautiful Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly), stealing off into the night but leaving her body untouched. They both return to the woods the next day, and (as a narrator puts it) “he robbed her of that which he had left her the day before.” As it happens, Rosamund’s father, the wealthy planter Clement Musgrove (Lance Roberts), has invited the very same Jamie Lockhart to dinner, not knowing that he is the Bandit of the Woods, knowing him only as the gentleman who saved him from being robbed by two other thieves, Little Harp (Andrew Durand) and Big Harp (Evan Harrington, who plays a severed head by crouching in a barrel.)
Rosamund has fallen for the Bandit of the Woods not knowing that he is also Jamie Lockhart the gentleman. Meanwhile, her evil stepmother Salome (Kritzer) has fallen for Jamie Lockhart the gentleman, not knowing that he is also the Bandit of the Woods. And Jamie has fallen for Rosamund the girl in the woods without realizing she’s also Rosamund the heiress, whom he has been scheming to marry for her money.
Despite the director’s missteps, and the show’s occasionally cringe-worthy attitudes towards women (as much the fault of the source material as the 1970s musical adaptation), Timbers deserves credit for turning “The Robber Bridegroom” revival into a trim 90 minutes of country music heaven, featuring a jaunty five-piece band, heavy on the banjo, fiddle and mandolin, that sounds contemporary enough so that you can tap your toe without feeling like a hayseed. If the comic chops are primarily the domain of Kritzer, who physically resembles a young Carol Burnett and shares some of her anarchic comic spirit, the cast is most (literally) noteworthy for its singing. A highlight includes Sleepy Man, a ballad piercingly sung by Ahna O’Reilly
Here are videos of two of the songs recorded during rehearsals:
The Robber Bridegroom
Book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry
Music by Robert Waldman
Directed by Alex Timbers. Music direction by Justin Levine, set design by
Donyale Werle, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting by Jeff Croiter and Jake DeGroot, sound by Darron L. West and Charles Coes, orchestrations by Justine Levine and Martin Lowe, wig and make-up by Leah Loukas, fight direction by Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum
Cast: Andrew Durand as “Little Harp,” Evan Harrington as “Big Harp,” Greg Hildreth as “Goat,” Leslie Kritzer as “Salome,” Ahna O’Reilly as “Rosamund,” Steven Pasquale as “Jamie Lockhart,” Nadia Quinn as “Raven/Goat’s Mother,” Lance Roberts as “Clement Musgrove” and Devere Rogers as “Airie.”
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The Robber Bridegroom is scheduled to run through May 29, 2016