Steven Pasquale and Ahna O’Reilly hit the Natchez Trace in Alex Timbers’ high-energy staging of this backwoods bluegrass musical based on the Eudora Welty novella.
Even without his name on the program, it would be a cinch to pick The Robber Bridegroom as the work of Alex Timbers. Combining the hyperkinetic rowdiness and spirited self-mockery of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson with the larkish low-tech Story Theater tricks of Peter and the Starcatcher, the production imposes the director’s signature wink-wink style on the material to a suffocating degree. The show boasts a hardworking cast led by Steven Pasquale, a rousing five-piece band and gorgeous design elements. But this twangy 1975 bluegrass musical comedy based on Eudora Welty’s Mississippi fairytale works way too hard at stealing hearts.
The piece has an intriguing history. Playwright-lyricist Alfred Uhry and composer Robert Waldman adapted the show from Welty’s 1942 novella about a Southern bandit with a double identity, which borrowed its title from a Brothers Grimm tale. Raul Julia first played the dashing antihero Jamie Lockhart in an early-’70s workshop before John Houseman acquired the rights for The Acting Company. Kevin Kline stepped into the title role, starring opposite Patti LuPone, and the production played two weeks on Broadway as the kickoff to a successful yearlong national tour. It then returned to Broadway in 1976 and ran for just over four months, long enough to win new lead Barry Bostwick a Tony.
Given that this Roundabout Theatre Company staging is the show’s first major New York revival, it comes with a curiosity factor for musical theater buffs. But based on the evidence presented here, it’s hard to make much of a case for this tiresome hoedown. Set in late-18th century Mississippi, it’s a silly story loaded with rambunctious whimsy and hokey humor at the expense of subtext, set to ersatz Appalachian tunes that range from boisterous to pretty, without showing much distinction in terms of melody or ability to drive the thin story. It’s like a non-ursine version of The Country Bear Jamboree from Disneyland.
Still, the cast do everything within their power to convince us of the material’s infectiousness. The opening has them barreling down the aisles and onto the stage to begin their lively account of a bunch of liars, swindlers, cutthroats, fools and lovers, back in the lawless days of the Mississippi Territory. The actors then slip into character in “Once Upon the Natchez Trace,” which introduces them one by one in broad-strokes descriptions that never get much deeper.
Jamie (Pasquale) is an honest-seeming gentleman who becomes a ruthless criminal with just a few smears of wild blackberry juice across his face to disguise him. His chief competition in thievery is Little Harp (Andrew Durand), a “mangy lookin’ skunk” who hauls around the severed (yet still talking) head of his brother Big Harp (Evan Harrington) in a trunk. (Their duet is called “Two Heads.”) After saving wealthy plantation owner Clement Musgrove (Lance Roberts) from the Harp Brothers, Jamie gets an invitation to dinner to meet the planter’s greatest treasure, his beautiful daughter Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly). That’s if her ugly stepmother, Salome (Leslie Kritzer), doesn’t eliminate her first, having hired village idiot Goat (Greg Hildreth) to bump her off.
Before the dinner, however, Rosamund meets Jamie in bandit guise in the woods, where he steals her clothes in their first encounter and her virginity in their second. Too smitten to risk being wooed, she then remains incognito during the undisguised Jamie’s official visit, setting in motion a chaotic — and in this version, barely coherent — plot of mistaken identities and kidnapping on the twisty path to true love.
The source material was considered a departure for Welty from the intimate emotional and psychological landscape of the short stories that put her on the map, instead stepping into Southern Gothic territory with elements plucked from Cinderella, Shakespearean forest comedies and the Cupid and Psyche myth. Uhry was a natural fit to adapt the book, having shown a keen ear for the folksy, antiquated ways of Southern life and the cadences of flavorful regional dialogue in plays like Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo. But Timbers — one of the creators of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, whose next big assignment is shepherding Disney’s Frozen musical to Broadway — is so intent on turning it into a rollicking Hee Haw sketch filled with cartoonish violence that all the charm gets stomped out the piece.
Even the marvelous Kritzer, a dynamite musical comedy performer having a blast as greedy schemer Salome, eventually wears thin with her pantomime mugging. (Though her sneering signoff, “Bye,” gets a big laugh every time.) Nonetheless, it’s still somewhat disconcerting to watch her character become the butt of a knee-slapping joke when she’s stuffed in a sack and beaten to death. At the risk of taking it too literally, the whiff of questionable sexual politics is also apparent in a ditty called “Love Stolen,” which celebrates rape over romance. But the show is too asinine even to raise the hackles of the PC police. The only time its strained riotousness felt justified during the first press performance was when someone accidentally dropped a prop baby. At least plastic bounces.
Pasquale, as always, is a charismatic lead with a robust bari-tenor and a stocky physique that looks good packed into skintight antebellum leisurewear. But this is more of an ensemble piece than a star vehicle, so he shares the spotlight with a talented cast that often double as Foley artists and prop masters. O’Reilly makes a fetching female lead, equal parts dreamy and feisty; Roberts gives her planter father a sweet, easygoing innocence; and Durand and Hildreth milk plenty of goofy comedy from their roles. The musicians — on guitar, mandolin, banjo, upright bass and fiddle, with occasional piano — also make for an engaging onstage presence.
Designer Donyale Werle is doing a variation on work from his previous collaborations with Timbers. But the rustic wood-walled set evokes the time and place effectively, festooned with stuffed birds and other hunting trophies and featuring clever touches like a saloon hatch to reveal the piano. The real magic occurs, however, in the lighting, with co-designers Jake DeGroot and Jeff Croiter supplying twinkling stars and flickering lanterns in moonshine jars. Too bad it’s all in the service of a feeble show that’s been directed to death.
Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Steven Pasquale, Ahna O’Reilly, Leslie Kritzer, Andrew Durand, Evan Harrington, Greg Hildreth, Nadia Quinn, Lance Roberts, Devere Rogers
Director: Alex Timbers
Book & lyrics: Alfred Uhry, based on the novella by Eudora Welty
Music: Robert Waldman
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designers: Jake DeGroot, Jeff Croiter
Sound designers: Darron L. West, Charles Coes
Fight choreographer: Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum
Music director: Justin Levine
Orchestrations: Justin Levine, Martin Lowe
Choreographer: Connor Gallagher
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company