We’re now seeing an excellent revival of the musical that made Patti LuPone famous.
No, not EVITA, but the show for which she received her first Tony nomination as Best Featured Actress in a Musical: THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM.
In 1975, this adaptation of a Eudora Welty novella played a pre-planned limited engagement of 14 performances. Those were indeed enough to make LuPone the talk of the town. Some of that chatter was solid praise for the fine way that she sang Robert Waldman’s easygoin’ bluegrass music and delivered Alfred Uhry’s pungent lines and lyrics.
But truth to tell, to paraphrase another 1975 musical, the name on everybody’s lips was constantly Patti — because of her nude scene.
She played Rosamund, a sheltered rural Mississippi lass (albeit from a privileged background) who went walking through the woods and encountered bandit Jamie Lockhart. (He, incidentally, in that same production was a just-starting-out Kevin Kline.)
Not only did Jamie take Rosamund’s money, but he also insisted that she strip naked. Indeed LuPone did, and Uhry has long been fond of saying, “Once Patti was nude, she was in no hurry whatsoever to get off the stage.”
Here in Alex Timbers’ sterling revival at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, Ahna O’Reilly is substantially more demure. Now when Jamie (Steven Pasquale) demands that Rosamund change into her birthday suit, two ensemble members kneel in front of her, each holding a large fern leaf which he strategically places in front of O’Reilly as she, uh, comes clean. Oh, if you’re in the right place at this right time, you might get a little peek at a piece of forbidden fruit, but don’t count on it.
Frankly, if you see this production of THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM, you’ll automatically be in the right place at the right time. To cite one of Jamie’s lyrics from the spirited opening number, “I never would stand here and lie in your face.” The truth is that this is a beautifully performed, fun-filled ninety intermissionless minutes that sparklingly showcases this neglected musical.
Uhry is one of the American theater’s great examples of stick-to-it-iveness. In 1976, when THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM returned to Broadway for an open-ended run, it could only muster a respectable but money-losing 145 performances. Still, that was 144 more than a musical for which Uhry had written the lyrics in 1968 – and he wasn’t done suffering: in 1982 he had another one-night disaster with a vintage musical for which he’d spruced up the book.
A lesser man would have given up going to the theater, let alone writing for it, but Uhry’s best days were ahead of him. Setting shows in his native Atlanta did the trick, for his first hit play, DRIVING MISS DAISY, awarded him a 1989 Oscar (Best Adapted Screenplay) while two subsequent works snagged Tonys: THE LAST NIGHT AT BALLYHOO (Best Play, 1997) and PARADE (Best Book of a Musical, 1999). What a shame that the equally gifted Waldman hasn’t had the same luck.
THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM must be, however, the musical that most asks us to suspend our disbelief, for one character named Big Harp (Evan Harrington) is simply a decapitated head that’s still alive and sticking out of a large steamer trunk. Along with his brother Little Harp (Andrew Durand), we see that these siblings weren’t named for Harpo Marx, for they have a great deal to say and they sing one of the score’s most winning songs, “Two Heads Are Better Than One.” Sure, the line’s a cliché, but given that Big Harp provides the brains and Little Harp the brawn, the symbiosis is the logical subject for the song.
Others may feel they’re being asked to suspend disbelief when they see Jamie walk into the hotel room of another man – Rosamund’s father Clemment Musgrove (Lance Roberts) — and both are prepared to share the space. This was neither a mistake on the hotel’s part nor Uhry’s; strange as it may seem, once upon a time — especially in places such as Mississippi — room clerks would double-up guests when they ran out of rooms; both parties were then expected to grin, bear it and go to sleep. Call it another example of Southern hospitality.
There’d be no story to tell if Jamie and Clemment hadn’t bunked together, for when Little Harp breaks in to rob both parties, Jamie thwarts the crime, and Clemment is so in his debt that he invites Jamie to his home so he can meet his wife and daughter. But en route, Jamie will run into Rosamund for that bare-naked encounter.
When Jamie later shows up at their house, Rosamund won’t recognize him, for his face is no longer entirely covered in the berry juice he uses to mask his identity. Here Timbers decided to have Jamie put two red lines under his right eye to symbolize that his entire face is obscured. Because THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM is structured as a group of actors putting on a play, we accept the theatrical convention. Still, you’re better off knowing this before you enter the theater; otherwise, you’ll wonder why Rosamund isn’t recognizing him.
Keeping Pasquale’s face clean allows us to better see the devil (and Casanova) in his eye. We may be inclined to dislike musical theater outlaws, but we take to Jamie because of his atypical amoral policy: “I Steal with Style.” So he doesn’t deign to rob on the taking-candy-from-a-baby level. To him, any theft must pose an arduous challenge for him to devote his time, energy and brainpower to it. Jamie makes pilfering into an art, and we in musical theater tend to respect artists, don’t we?
We can certainly respect O’Reilly for the admirable job she’s doing as Rosamund. She’s firmly resolute in the way she insists “I want real love from a real man.” As any rock star can tell you, these virginal girls just love the bad boys, and O’Reilly shows how true that is.
The real thief of the show isn’t Jamiet, but Leslie Kritzer who steals the show as Salome, Clemment’s wife and Rosamund’s stepmother. If Salome took a DNA test, she just might be revealed as a long-lost relative of Cinderella’s stepmother, although that lady was substantially more benign than the horror that Salome is. Although we’re appalled early on when she blithely decapitates an animal, she looks at us askance, for she has no idea why we’re upset. That sets the tone for her sadism, although she does take time to enjoy a phallic symbol. You’ll be (to reference a very different musical that’s also set in the woods), excited AND scared by Kritzer in this genuinely hilarious performance of the highest caliber.
On Donyale Werle’s rustic hardware-store set replete with sawhorses, stools and benches, the rest of the nine-member cast slickly delivers every one of Timbers’ inventive visual jokes. He imaginatively employs a mirror, a scarf, an atomizer and even belly button lint. Best of all is his visual gag that stresses how little brainpower one character has.
At one point, Clemment is frustrated because he wants an explanation from Rosamund, who starts to sing it. “Honey, just leave out the song!” he demands. Actually, that’s very bad advice. All of the songs in THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM, enhanced by Justine Levine and Martin Lowe’s washboard and tub- thumpin’ orchestrations, are worth hearing.
One of the best is Rosamund’s insistence that there’s “Nothin’ Up.” She’s wrong; there’s plenty up right now at the Laura Pels.