by Brian Scott Lipton
Few directors in recent years have showed the theatrical imagination that Alex Timbers possesses. In works as varied as Peter and the Starcatcher, Here Lies Love and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Timbers has managed to bring visual flair, superb storytelling ability, and first-rate acting work to the stage consistently so that any piece can sparkle in its brightest light. And now he’s done it again with The Robber Bridegroom, at the Roundabout Laura Pels Theatre, turning this lesser-known 1975 folk-musical into what I suspect will be one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of 2016.
Adapted by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry from a novella by the great Southern writer Eudora Welty, and featuring a snappy bluegrass-flavored score by Robert Waldman (here performed by a delightful onstage band), The Robber Bridegroom lives up to its subtitle of a “Mississippi fairy tale.” It tells a fantastical story that includes a bodyless head, a talking raven, and an irresistible bunch of liars and lovers—all of whom we meet in the toe-tapping opening number “On the Natchez Trace.”
Soon, this tall tale begins to steadily unfold (in a mere 90 minutes) on Tony winner Donyale Werle’s spectacular, detail-filled set. We meet the handsome if literally two-faced Jamie Lockhart (a perfectly cast Steven Pasquale), charming as can be when he wants, but who “moonlights” as the mysterious “Bandit of the Woods.” While interrupting a robbery by the inept Little Hawk (a delicious Andrew Durand), he earns the gratitude of the victim, a rich plantation owner named Clement Musgrove (the delightful Lance Roberts).
But instead of accepting money, he accepts a dinner invitation to Musgrove’s home—where he meets his shrewish wife Salome (the consistently scene-stealing Leslie Kritzer, channeling Carol Burnett), and more importantly, his daughter Rosamund (the spirited Ahna O’ Reilly). Except he doesn’t recognize Rosamund, who has made herself look deliberately horrible because she doesn’t want to become betrothed to Jamie—not after having had a romantic rendezvous the previous night with the Bandit of the Woods. As they say, complications ensue—many of them—before this unlikely couple live happily ever after.
Pasquale, his booming bari-tenor filling the house on such songs as “I Steal with Style” and “Love Stolen,” is the ideal man for this job, while the delightful O’Reilly does a truly great job with the infectious “Nothin’ Up” and handles the show’s best-known song, the gorgeous ballad “Sleepy Man,” with aplomb. Meanwhile, the much-mugging Kritzer takes top honors in the comic department, while Greg Hildreth as the dumb-as-a-stick Goat isn’t far behind.
Not many shows on the boards right now can guarantee that you’ll leave with a smile on your face. “The Robber Bridegroom” will not only do that. It will steal your heart.
The Robber Bridegroom continues at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street) through May 29. For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit roundabouttheatre.org.
Photos: Joan Marcus