The Robber Bridegroom – A Review
In 1975, Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman constructed a foot stompin’, knee slappin’ good time with the musical The Robber Bridegroom. It played two short stints on Broadway, one in ’75 (with Patti LuPone) and the other in ’76 (starring Barry Bostwick who won a Tony Award). Since then, The Robber Bridegroom has been mostly relegated to regional and college productions, but a new revival by Roundabout Theatre Company in their Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre is so delightful that it makes you wonder why we don’t see this musical more often. What makes this production such a darn good time can be credited to three things: a catchy, energetic score, an ensemble working in perfect synchronicity, and the smart and steady direction of Alex Timbers.
Set in Mississippi during the 18th Century (back when it was territory and not a state), a group of country musicians gather on the stage and tell the folk tale of the The Robber Bridegroom. The story (based on the novella by author Eudora Welty) is set along the Natchez Trace, a road that ran between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi and was known to be frequented by highway robbers. Jamie Lockhart (Steven Pasquale) is a man with two identities one a decent, law-abiding citizen and the other is the “Bandit of the Wood”. Jamie saves the wealthy plantation owner Clement Musgrove (Lance Roberts) when he is being held-up by the Harp Brothers (Evan Harrington and Andrew Durand). This leads Musgrove to invite Jamie back to his mansion where he wants to betroth him to his lovely daughter Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly. We also get to meet his conniving wife Salome (Leslie Kritzer) who is jealous of her stepdaughter and makes every effort to get rid of her, going so far as hiring a simpleton, hillbilly boy named Goat (Greg Hildreth) to kill the girl (a task he fails at). Rosamund meets and falls for “The Bandit of the Woods”, unknowing that this is the suitor her father is bringing home. When he comes to the house, she disguises herself as an awkward, unattractive girl. The rest of the show is a comedy of errors based around Jamie and his alter ego wooing Rosamund and her alter ego, as well as Salome’s stratagems to kill Rosamund. It’s a ridiculous plot but there is fun to be found in the ridiculous and The Robber Bridegroom is the perfect vehicle for that kind of absurdity.
If you like country music with a hillbilly twang, The Robber Bridegroom conjures quite the hootenanny or barn dance in your mind. Robert Waldman’s music transports us back to that banjo-plunking, Hee-Haw-esque country music of yesteryear (Conway Twitty meets Loretta Lynn), before the genre became infused with a pop sound that watered it down. From the opening number “Once Upon the Natchez Trace”, we are drawn in by both its folksiness and its warmth. Alfred Uhry’s lyrics are slightly off-color, sometimes raucous, and then, in the musical’s most well-known song “Sleepy Man”, quite pastoral and poetic. It’s not a typical Broadway score to say the least, but it paints its world perfectly. It’s the right genre for telling this kind of tale.
From minute go, we immediately melt to the sexiness and confidence of the show’s star Steven Pasquale who portrays the title character (a.k.a. Jamie Lockhart). He is especially charming in his first big number “I Steal with Style”, a ballsy character number wherein he justifies his life as a career criminal. As Rosamund, Ahna O’Reilly is his equal match, earthy and radiant, singing with a breezy ease, lovely on “Sleepy Man”. Leslie Kritzer is an over-the-top Salome, vying to be the center of attention while wagging a waspish tongue and slopping sugar, sometimes at the same time. Her rendition of “The Pricklepear Bloom” is an audacious, often cartoonish, attempt to secure the spotlight, establishing her as a villain in the style of an old-fashioned melodrama that yields great payoffs in the song of her comeuppance, “Goodbye Salome”. Lance Roberts is a likeable, comically clueless Clement Musgrove, especially funny when he’s being scammed by Kritzer’s Salome. As the village idiot named Goat, Greg Hildreth is always comical (and just a tad creepy) in the Deliverance, “Squeal like a pig” sort of way. The show’s most memorable performance comes to us courtesy of Andrew Durand as Little Harp, the pathetic bandit with two braids who can’t get out of his own way to get anything done. Constantly badgered by what is left of his brother Big Harp (a head in a box played to decapitated splendor by Evan Harrington), Durand’s Little Harp is an all-purpose schlemiel who you kind of feel sorry for, even as you enjoy watching him fail.
The Robber Bridegroom is at its best when director Alex Timbers employs his clever touches to augment the earnest but mediocre book with his ingenious staging techniques. Utilizing a batch of utilitarian props that appear to be right out of the corn crib and root cellar, as well as an invested ensemble who have clearly signed-on for a game of make-believe (a la blanket fort Saturdays), Timbers transports us with whimsical economy to such places as the deep woods, a field of indigo, a southern plantation, and a bandit’s hideaway. He understands the material he’s working with and keeps its presentation brisk, boisterous, and full of fairy tale fantasy and humor. It’s always fun to see how how Timbers has masterfully kept the ensemble looking cacophonous and improvised, even as a rich and colorful staging unfolds before our eyes that you know required myriad moments of calculated detail to achieve such “spontaneity”. His finger is on the pulse of everything that is needed in this show and he makes every moment work.
The Robber Bridegroom might not be for everyone, especially if country music is not your cup of tea. I’m not particularly a fan of the genre myself, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Roundabout Theatre’s revival, so much in fact that I am hoping that a cast recording is made and soon. I cannot get the melodies, nor the pictures of that delightful cast bedeviling us with this rare and sublime revival, out of my head. That alone will assuredly send me back to the Laura Pels Theatre for a second viewing and will hopefully get you to your first. You’ll have a ball.
I would never “lie to your face”.