If you love American roots music and off-color nostalgia, y'all better head over to the Laura Pels Theatre, where Roundabout Theatre Company is reviving Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman's The Robber Bridegroom. Based on Eudora Welty's eponymous novella, it hasn't has a major New York production since its second Broadway run in 1977 (the first, in 1975, was only two weeks long). Despite an enjoyable production from director Alex Timbers, we can understand why this Mississippi fairy tale isn't often rehashed.
The show begins with a bunch of smiling, hooting Southern stereotypes invading the aisles and promising to tell a true story, which is quite clearly a tall tale: Jamie Lockhart (Steven Pasquale) is the gentleman bandit of the Natchez Trace. He saves wealthy planter Clement Musgrove (Lance Roberts) from being plundered by brothers Little Harp (Andrew Durand) and Big Harp (Evan Harrington) only so he can rob him later. That is, until Musgrove invites Lockhart to dinner and suggests he marry his daughter, Rosamund (Ahna O'Reilly). What no one realizes is that Lockhart, disguised as "The Bandit of the Woods," has already been carrying on a passionate affair with Rosamund (a berry smudge on his right cheek apparently renders him completely unrecognizable to her). Meanwhile, Musgrove's second wife, Salome (Leslie Kritzer), wants Jamie for herself. She hires Goat (the hilarious Greg Hildreth) to push Rosamund into the ravine, promising him a suckling pig as a reward. Wild trickery and implausible mistaken identity ensue.
While levity reigns, it is difficult to ignore some of the more questionable passages in Uhry's libretto. "Oh yes she's bound and gagged / And drugged and bagged / That pitiful dear / Is comin' here," Goat and Little Harp sing in radiant harmony about the delights of a captive woman during the song "Poor Tied Up Darlin'." Of course, they're villains, but the hero of our story isn't much better with his insistence, during the tunefully disturbing "Love Stolen," that consent is a turnoff. Timbers wisely mitigates this ick factor by keeping everything light and irreverent, tongue firmly planted in cheek. He's also done some liberal editing, shaving the show down to 90 minutes (it often runs over 2 hours). The result is a snappy, concertlike revival that feels like a particularly good night at Encores!
A lot of this feeling can be attributed to Leslie Kritzer, who runs away with the show. Gesticulating with a bedazzled folding fan, she mugs her way to a standing ovation. "Yaaaasss," she exhales when she first lays eyes on Jamie, later whispering sweet nothings to his crotch. She's one of those villains you root for simply because she's the most entertaining one up there. It seems appropriate that the cast reprises "Goodbye Salome" at the curtain call: After Kritzer leaves the stage the show might as well be over.
That's not to say there aren't other fine performances: The smolderingly handsome Pasquale is in excellent voice, effortlessly soaring through numbers like "Steal With Style." Delivering her songs with utter vocal perfection, O'Reilly sounds straight off a vintage '70s folk album. But neither of our young lovers is as immediately memorable as our villain. The best they can do is wow us with their musicality.
In fairness, that seems to be the focus of this revival. A hipster bluegrass band (led by Cody Owen Stine) occupies a platform stage right, seamlessly meshing with the cast. Under the direction of Justin Levine, they perform Waldman's music with energetic tempo and near-perfect dynamics. You won't be able to resist the urge to tap your toes along to this country bear jamboree.
Keeping with that general aesthetic, Donyale Werle's set is reminiscent of his work on Timbers' Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: It's American folk baroque, an overstuffed Cracker Barrel of down-home delights. Props emerge from every corner and orifice throughout Timber's unapologetically theatrical staging, which is just as inventive as his work on Peter and the Starcatcher. Chandeliers and taxidermy compete for space on Jake DeGroot and Jeff Croiter's maxed-out lighting plot, which creates a surprising number of looks for the limited playing space. In a particularly nice touch, flickering candles in jars hang from the rafters like a country version of the chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera. Fashioning a vest for every man, costume designer Emily Rebholz (who also designed Bloody Bloody) places this late-18th-century tale vaguely in the early 20th century, helping to solidify the framing of the musical as a fairy tale told by nostalgic and unreliable narrators.
Even if The Robber Bridegroom causes you to cringe at certain moments, it's saved by a cast of talented musicians and the incomparable Kritzer. The less you think about the wider implications of the story, the better.