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Once upon a time, a beautiful Southern belle was picking herbs for dinner when a mysterious stranger appeared, threatened her, and stole all her clothing. When she arrived home, her resentful, oversexed stepmother blamed her for the attack, so the belle ran away, tracked down her assailant — and gave him her virginity, plus a couple of kids.
How you’ll feel about The Robber Bridegroom depends on whether that story sounds like a good time. Alex Timbers (of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson fame) directs the Roundabout’s revival of Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman’s 1975 musical. Based on a 1942 Eudora Welty novella, this is a down-home Southern fairytale boasting raucous music, crisp choreography, and sight gags galore. What it doesn’t muster is a compelling reason for its queasy-making politics.
The title character (Steven Pasquale) is a Mississippi highwayman leading a double life: In respectable company, he’s Jamie Lockhart; in the wilds of the Natchez Trace, his face smeared with berry juice, he’s as fearsome a bandit as they come. One day, he rescues bumbling plantation owner Clement Musgrove (Lance Roberts) from the clutches of a rival robber and wins an invitation to the Musgrove family dinner table — plus the hand of Musgrove’s lovely daughter, Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly). Rosamund’s not interested, though: She’s already smitten with the handsome guy who stole her clothing. So she uglifies herself to deflect Lockhart’s advances and sets off to find the mysterious bandit she loves.
This comedy of errors is accompanied by an excellent five-piece band, and the ensemble cast stomps and cheers along. Excess energy and enjoyably weird flourishes abound (for instance, the inept bandit who totes his brother’s severed head, still alive and talking, around with him in a trunk).
There is one sourpuss amid all the fun: Rosamund’s stepmother, Salome (Leslie Kritzer), the prototypically jealous, lustful second wife, bent on destroying her lovely stepdaughter. If Salome has it in for Rosamund, the writers have it in for her. Despite Kritzer’s strong performance, Salome is exhaustingly stereotypical — desperate, venal, clumsy. In one particularly uncomfortable gag, her body is stuffed in a burlap sack, wheeled overhead, and cheerfully flung through a doorway out of sight. Timbers orchestrates these acts of violence with a cheerful wink, exaggerated gestures, and lots of presentational grinning.
It’s hard to know how to handle all this aggressively pleasant misogyny. O’Reilly makes clear that her Rosamund welcomes the robber’s advances. She loves her outlaw so much that she doesn’t mind being his mistress — or his apparent predilection for nonconsensual sex. When she discovers he’s deceived her about his real identity, she’s pouty, but not for long.
In the 1975 original, the robber reportedly knocked his lady out cold before they did it. But keeping Rosamund conscious and eager is cold comfort in a world this hostile to women. Sure, fairytales are frequently disturbing, but such darkness is usually rich with meaning. Perhaps a more nuanced bandit would lend complexity to the tale (Raul Julia originated the role).
Without such nuance, though, this Robber Bridegroom offers pushy comedy with little purpose. Something’s being satirized, but what? Doofy Southerners? Lascivious outlaws? Or maybe the joke’s on us: on our willingness to swallow any tale of violence, so long as it’s accompanied by a catchy beat.
The Robber Bridegroom
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street