Once Upon a Bluegrass Robber Bridegroom
A hillbilly musical has entered the house of Laura Pels Theatre of the Roundabout. With lights made of mason jars and stuffed birds and animal heads mounted all around, we are entering a Mississippi Bluegrass fairy tale of love, lust, murderous plots, an evil stepmother, a two faced charming bandit, and, oh yes, a talking head brother to a thief. It’s The Robber Bridegroom (directed by Alex Timbers of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson fame, a natural long lost half brother of a musical to this one), a lively and fun southern twist on a tall tale told with a grin and a jab. Trust me, it’s a bit of a hokey side show of a show, but I took it as such, as if it was a traveling actor troop rolling into a small town to entertain us with this funny tall tale. The musical starts off with a ‘Once Upon a Natchez Trace’ sung by the entire cast, accompanied by the glorious on-stage bluegrass band. The troop files onto the stage from the back of the audience making it feel like a wild and raunchy jamboree party is just beginning and a wild ride of a story is about to be told in a big hilarious way.
Back in 1975, this musical with book and lyrics by Alred Uhry and music by Robert Waldman, debuted on Broadway for a short limited run before heading out on tour. It starred Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone (who was awarded her first of six nominations for a Tony, this one for best featured actress). After that successful run and tour, a new production was oddly enough staged on Broadway one year later in 1976, and this expanded and improved revival, with an entirely new cast, won a Tony for Barry Bostwick who played the lead role, Jamie Lockhart, the two-faced Bandit of the Woods. This time around, we are graced with the glorious Steven Pasquale as the gentleman robber, and it’s a pretty perfect blessing. He definitely has the charm and the voice, not to mention the good looks and the swagger to pull off this scoundrel.
Surrounding this dream of a leading man, we have a dark fairy tale assortment of strange and wonderful characters carousing around the woods, singing smart and fun songs with an amazing festive band (Cody Owen Stine, Mike Rosengarten, Ben Lively, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, Matt Cusack). All together, they tell us a tale that is hard to believe, but they all swear that it happened, “I never would stand here And lie in your face That’s exactly how it happened Once upon a Natchez Trace”. The Robber Bridegroom is about the charming Jamie Lockhart, who disguised with berry stains on his face, calls himself The Bandit Of The Woods. This disguised robber falls for the beautiful maiden wandering in the woods, Rosamund (a quirky and adorable Ahna O’Reilly); saving her from a dimwitted boy-assassin sent by her evil stepmother to murder her (a fantastic and hilarious Greg Hildreth as the simpleton Goat). Lockhart robs her of her clothes, but sends her home to her father and stepmother safe and sound; innocent and pure although naked. Unbeknownst to either, these two are being set-up by Rosamund’s father, Clement Musgrove (a beautiful voiced and jovial Lance Roberts) to thank Lockhart for saving him from a clumsy thief named Little Harp (a brilliant Andrew Durand) and his talking head of a brother, Big Harp (a very funny Evan Harrington in a trunk) on his way home in the woods. Rosamund doesn’t recognize Lockhart without the stains on his face, and he doesn’t recognize Rosamund. She pretends to be unattractive and unappealing in order to save herself for her love, The Bandit Of The Woods. Add in the scheming evil jealous (and hilarious) stepmother, Salome (a scene-stealing Leslie Kritzer) trying to hold onto as much of Musgrove’s wealth as possible at the expense of Rosamund’s life, and what we have is a ton of fun and confusion in the woods.
Based on 1942 novella by Eudora Welty, this musical, when properly premiering on Broadway in 1976, was a full length two act musical, but the show at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre has been condensed into a fast and furious 90min honky-tonk musical, and my guess is that this length suits this show perfectly. It’s just the right amount of silliness and fun, without wearing us down. Pasquale certainly does know how to steal our hearts with style, and for that, I’m truly thankful.