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The Robber Bridegroom

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ahna O'Reilly and Steven Pasquale
Photo by Joan Marcus

If we don't associate the South with magic and wonderment anymore, maybe we need to rethink our priorities. Because whatever else that big chunk of America may be, in the musical The Robber Bridegroom, which Roundabout is reviving at its Laura Pels Theatre, it certainly still seems like a place where miracles can happen regularly. And the two biggest of those, amid a production that otherwise has no shortage, go by the names of Alex Timbers and Leslie Kritzer.

Timbers, the evening's director, shouldn't be a stranger to anyone who's been paying attention to the most vital and original theatre of the last decade or so. Though he cut his teeth at the experimental Off-Broadway company Les Freres Corbusier, in recent years he's moved more mainstream with the likes of Peter and the Starcatcher, Here Lies Love, and Rocky on Broadway. If not all of his efforts have been equally successful, they have shown that he knows more about how to make a royal feast out of a trifle than almost anyone else on the scene; his sense of linking unique visuals to shows' content, whether straight-on or by juxtaposition, is largely unmatched.

This grants The Robber Bridegroom the sense of madcap informality it needs to land as a wild romp in a land where such things are not always welcome. Alfred Uhry (book and lyrics) and Robert Waldman (music) freely and loosely adapted Eudora Welty's 1942 novella of the same title, which itself repositioned (with not much fealty) a classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale to Mississippi's Natchez Trace, for their whisper-light but fast-strumming 1976 musical. (That version starred Barry Bostwick, though another Broadway incarnation the previous year paired future stars Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone.) Though the material both pays tribute to and lovingly tweaks the tropes of the genre—complete with prophetic animals and a wicked stepmother—it also goes off, unapologetically, in plenty of crazy directions of its own. (A severed head, still capable of speaking and scheming, is a significant character.)

In this maybe-fantasy world, Jamie Lockhart is ideally genteel a paramour by day, romancing the lovely young Rosamund at the behest of her father and his new wife, but far more interested in robbing her blind—of everything from her clothes to her virtue—once the sun goes down. Whether the two-faced Jamie can successfully unite both halves of his personality and make everyone happy is the not-so-serious prevailing question, especially given how constantly under fire he is by the melodramatic machinations of Rosamund's new mom-by-marriage, Salome, and her doltish indentured servant, Goat.

Leslie Kritzer and the company
Photo by Joan Marcus

Yet Timbers is ruled by the underlying logic that identifies this, first and foremost, as an oral-history folk tale in which it's no longer known what's true and what isn't. ("I would never stand here and lie in your face," runs a frequent lyric that you are given no good reason to believe.) So a dilapidated barn-lodge (the stuffed-to-bursting set is by Donyale Werle) becomes a hoe-down performance space where milk crates, busted mattresses, bolts of fabric, and more believably conspire to spin the sights and sounds of an imagined—yet vaguely plausible—past. (Maybe Jake DeGroot and Jeff Croiter's lights are more involved than they should be, but Emily Rebholz's costumes have the properly wacky makeshift, found-object quality.) The band (five pieces, under Cody Owen Stine's conducting) ensures that Waldman's oddly lush and varietal musicscape works well in this environment, springing just as organically from its surroundings.

The overall feel is unlike anything Timbers has conjured before, though his staging of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson came close. There, though, contrast was president a way of linking a long-ago era with our own. That's not needed this time: Ultra-swift changes between times, locations, and moods, or sometimes all three, are much more important, and through them Timbers constructs an entire sprawling map that turns what could otherwise be a staid setting into a jet-fueled travelogue you never get tired of watching reinvent itself. Perhaps the idea itself isn't new, but in the way it appears to emerge viscerally from the minds of its crooner-creators in the opening number (the itchily catchy "Once Upon the Natchez Trace"), it feels fresh, even if the choreography (by Connor Gallagher) is too rote and unadventurous to match it.

Steven Pasquale brings an earthy, beguiling appeal (and that slam-bang voice, which sounds as at home in this down-home setting as it did in the more legit-minded The Bridges of Madison County on Broadway two years ago) to Jamie, though he doesn't draw the firmest contrast between daytime gentleman and nighttime scoundrel. Similarly, Ahna O'Reilly struggles to find the competing sensuality and sexuality in Rosamund, and strains at a fair amount of the humor. As Rosamund's father, Lance Roberts finds a better balance between genuine affection and clue-free silliness. Goat is definitely more of the latter, but in playing him Greg Hildreth avoids devolving into total caricature. So, for that matter, Andrew Durand and Evan Harrington, who make a raucous pair as robbers Little Harp and Big Harp (the latter being the head-only guy).

Last, but by no means least, there's Kritzer. Anyone who's followed her career knows there's hardly a better modern-day musical comedienne, and she's put to incredible use as Salome. An animated Disney character come to life, she's got maniacal eyebrows, a mouth that goes from glowing grin to sniveling sneer in mere milliseconds, and a twangy foghorn of a voice that knows just when to be Ethel Merman comforting and Grand Ole Opry grating. She looks to have country in her bones, too, as she flips between "refined lady" and "gutter trash" in the flutter of an eyelid, but it doesn't come across as a put-on—this Salome is everyone and anyone at once.

Want more? Listen to her sink her teeth into her bizarre big solo, and make an eight-course meal of lyrics like "Fair pricklepair / Flower gem / Rare beauty from smell to stem / Thy pleasure would come up right / If it wasn't for that lilybitch." No one can pratfall like Kritzer, either, as she displays during a few delirious minutes late in the evening. And either she proved herself as an improvisational genius while staring at Pasquale's crotch after a dance number at Saturday night's press performance (some standards of decency prevent me from dwelling on this, but let's just say her lip movements could suggest really a lot without, um, ever going to expected places) or a master of making a rigorously rehearsed bit look as though it was conceived in that very moment.

Kritzer is the heart, soul, and fullest embodiment of the aesthetic that Timbers's The Robber Bridegroom celebrates, and the main reason it seems like a musical-comedy curative than a quaint, antiquated curiosity. Going into The Robber Bridegroom, I was positive it wasn't a revival we needed. But through tireless application of their inimitable, irresistible arts, Timbers and Kritzer have proved me gloriously, giddily wrong.

The Robber Bridegroom
Through May 29
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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