Leave your shoes at home and check your IQ at the door -- New Line Theatre is havin' a hillbilly hoedown. Based on a novel by Eudora Welty (inspired by the Grimm fairy tale of the same name), The Robber Bridegroom is a romantic tale of mistaken identities in which the bad people get killed and the not-so-bad ones get laid. It's easy to figure out why this musical isn't done more often, and it has nothing to do with its (overhyped) nudity. The book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry and music by Robert Waldman are mostly bland. Scott Miller's energetic staging and Matt King's excellent fiddle-playing manage to disguise some of the play's flaws, but even the best perfume can't hide the odor of ordinariness.
For the production, Miller employs a simple square stage for the main playing area, around the perimeter of which the actors sit watching and commenting on scenes when they're not onstage. Miller uses the ensemble well -- they create sound effects, transform into trees and forest animals, and provide a comforting sense of camaraderie. The director has the cast interact with the audience before the show starts, introducing the characters with humor and warming the audience to the show's downhome feel. But the first song, "Once Upon a Natchez Trace," undercuts the comfortable atmosphere by presenting a confusing list of characters and strange stories that only make sense at the end of the show when the song is reprised.
Leah Schumacher gives the most noteworthy performance as rich girl Rosamund Musgrove, who falls in love with the mysterious "bandit of the woods" as she tries to dodge an arranged marriage. Like Superman's Lois Lane, she doesn't recognize that her "bandit" by night is the same guy she's supposed to marry (Michael Heeter as Jamie Lockhart). Schumacher's lovely voice makes the dull "Ain't Nothin' Up" bearable and soars in the beautiful ballad of "Rosamund's Dream." Heeter doesn't match Schumacher's vocal volume or quality, but he scores some compelling moments, especially in the haunting seduction scene "Deeper in the Woods."
The ensemble produces fine harmony and some show-stealing performances. Jeffrey Pruett, Kimi Short and Christine Brooks portray the "Goat" family with such sharply focused intensity that whenever the play gets boring, you can amuse yourself by watching their reactions to the show. Pruett lends his sterling tenor voice to "Deeper in the Woods" and "Poor Tied Up Darlin'." Short is a frying-pan toting Mama whose deadpan delivery of some of the show's funniest lines is almost worth the price of admission, and Brooks is such a cute bundle of frenetic squeaky energy that you want to give her some cheese and take her home to amuse the cat.
Thomas Conway provides solid support as Rosamund's rich Daddy, but Ember Hyde struggles to find variety in the stereotypic role of the evil stepmother. Gregory Paul Hunsaker and Drew Somervell are amusing as the stupid thief brothers Little Harp and Big Harp. Jamie McKittrick successfully pulls off the strange role of the Raven -- her birdlike movements and raspy voice are successfully played for laughs, especially in her death scene. Richard Ives adds his vocal strength to the musical numbers, which are accompanied by fiddler King, guitarist Mike Renard, banjo picker Michael Mason and Dave Hall on the stand-up bass.
The music is most successful when it's driving the story forward; the humor is most successful when it's genuinely connected to character. Uhry's later, more successful plays (Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo) are inhabited by eccentric but realistic characters rather than the cartoonish stereotypes that populate this nearly 30-year-old musical. But New Line's production works hard to make The Robber Bridegroom a knee-slappin' good time, and Miller's pleasant mishmash of theatrical styles and the talented ensemble of singers mine the few nuggets of gold in the show.
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