When Clive Barnes reviewed The Robber Bridegroom for The New York Times in 1976, his admiring notice called this Southern pastoral “an unpretentious show but extremely stylish.” Forty years later, both halves of that verdict are even truer. In its new revival of the rarely seen musical, the Roundabout Theater Company has produced a Robber Bridegroom that is totally stylish, deeply entertaining, and almost vanishingly slight.
That’s not a criticism, entirely. The director is Alex Timbers, best known for his fantastical and fantastic stagings for Here Lives Love (a dance-club tribute to Imelda Marcos), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (a steampunk biomusical about the seventh president of the United States), and Peter and the Starcatcher (an ingeniously low-fi take on how a lost boy became Peter Pan). Here, he’s working solidly in his rambunctious style: Timbers has made this musical a rollicking good time, a goofy, high-spirited hootenanny. It’s a mighty Mississippi of fun.
The cast — notably lead Steven Pasquale and scene-stealing supporting player Leslie Kritzer, but really everyone — is spectacular. The music is rootsy Americana (by composer Robert Waldman, with lyrics by Pulitzer-winning Driving Miss Daisy author Alfred Uhry, who also wrote the script), and the band is there on stage with the cast. The set, by frequent Timbers collaborator Donyale Werle, is a charming, funny, Americana-filled barn, as through New Orleans Preservation Hall were transformed into the world’s most idealized Friday’s.
But Timbers has also stripped out whatever darkness and complexity Uhry’s script once contained.
The story is a sort of American fairytale, adapted from a 1942 Eudora Welty novella that was itself derived from traditional European folk stories. The hero is Jamie Lockhart (Pasquale), a gentlemanly robber with a secret identity as the Bandit of the Woods. And his heroine is Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly, pretty but a cipher), the daughter of the wealthiest planter around, who is both in love with the mysterious bandit and being married off to the suave Lockhart. There’s the rich, doting father, the evil stepmother (Kritzer), and assorted hangers-on, including a lower-class thief who works with his brother, just a head in a suitcase. By the end, Lockhart is honest and rich, and happily married to Rosamund.
Pasquale, as Lockhart, is handsome and charismatic, raffish but rakish, and sings beautifully. Kritzer, a lip-smackingly cold and calculating second wife Salome, is the hilarious comic relief in an already very comical play. The cast is rounded out by some very funny Timbers regulars in supporting roles, notable a perfectly-mugging Evan Harrington as Big Harp, the head in the suitcase.
But in his 1976 review, Barnes refers to an “underlying menace” in the novella that Uhry retained in his script. Menace is absent here. The critic Scott Miller has argued that it is a story about America’s “two faces,” one civilized and one animal. That’s an interesting point in this presidential season, and also one that’s left unmade. There is, however, a weird undercurrent of misogyny at play, as Rosamund is bargained over like chattel and Salome, later, is tied up in a burlap sack — or at least a body-double dummy is — and then tossed and thwacked around the stage. But that man-shticking seems an accidental effect of theatrical exuberance, not a conscious choice. This is designed as a good time, nothing more.
Indeed, the most interesting angle is a new one, and perhaps also accidental. With its mismatched lovers wandering in a forest, with a potential husband unrecognizable only because he wears a bit of smeared berry on his face, with its Rosamund (which sounds almost like Rosalind), Timbers’s take on Robber Bridegroom seems like nothing so much as a goofy spoof of Shakespeare.
Which is fun! (At least, if you’re not a woman in a sack.) But it doesn’t make much of a case for why The Robber Bridegroom, a forgotten musical, deserves to be remembered. B