The Roundabout Theatre Company’s exceptionally charming revival of The Robber Bridegroom is exactly the kind of intimate extravaganza you would expect from Alex Timbers, among the most inventive young directors working in the musical theater today: crowned by Disney to usher Frozen from screen to stage, Timbers’ c.v. is a wildly eclectic list that includes the Broadway musical adaptation of Rocky, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Here Lies Love, Peter And The Starcatcher and Amazon’s Emmy-winning streaming series Mozart In The Jungle, of which he’s an executive producer. In this director’s resourceful mind, “intimate” and “extravaganza” can comfortably co-exist. Like George Martin with the Beatles or Hal Prince with Stephen Sondheim, Timbers introduces artists to their own works in ways they may well never have imagined. Although it’s running off-Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre, The Robber Bridegroom is a highlight of a season that’s fast becoming a landmark for musicals on Broadway and off, along with another offering, the Public Theater’s Southern Comfort, reviewed below.
The Robber Bridegroom has been a legend from the beginning; it came out of the Musical Theater Lab created by producer Stuart Ostrow (Pippin, M. Butterfly) which became the workshop model later responsible for such shows as A Chorus Line. The book and lyrics are by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, Parade), the music by Robert Waldman, based on a Southern Gothic tall tale by Eudora Welty. The original productions in 1975 and ’76 are the stuff of Broadway lore, having launched the careers of both Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline and established The Acting Company, created by John Houseman as a professional stepping stone for his Juilliard School drama division graduates.
In a Mississippi backwater, the woods are full of marauders and con men, none more feared and exalted than the Bandit Of The Woods, a gentleman thief whose mantra is “Steal With Style,” as the song goes. By day, he’s Jamie Lockhart, who saves Clement Musgrove, the town’s wealthiest landowner, from a robbery attempt. (Musgrave is in fact a plantation owner and he’s played here by the fine black actor Lance Roberts — lending either irony or implausibility to a story that, granted, doesn’t invite close examination.)
The grateful Musgrove invites Jamie (Steven Pasquale, in his best role yet) home for Sunday dinner; sniffing a big score, Jamie agrees. At dinner he meets Musgrove’s lovely available daughter Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly) and his new wife, the nasty, self-regarding witch Salome, a cruel stepmother to Rosamund (and played by Leslie Kritzer, hilarious in a role tailored to her). Emulating a Shakespeare romance, all sorts of silly coincidences and mishaps occur — mistaken identities, unlikely separations and tomfoolery involving brotherly robbers, one of whom is a bodiless head — before fate intervenes, dispensing with the wicked wife and seeing Jamie and Rosamund betrothed just in time for her to pop out their newborn twins. Trust me, that’s not a spoiler.
The Robber Bridegroom score is fun if not exactly memorable. The show rests on committed performances and an atmosphere that inches up to cute without diving into it whole hog. The Pels has been decked out by Bloody Bloody designer Donyale Werle win a woodsy fantasia that sets the whimsical mood without shoving it down our throats; credit also the drenching light palette from designers Jake Degroot and Jeff Crofter, and Emily Rebholz’s enchanting clothes. Equally important are Timbers’ creative partners, choreographer Connor Gallagher and especially music director Justine Levine, whose work makes a modest score soar.
Another new musical, also in a bluegrass vein, has taken flight down at the Public Theater. Southern Comfort is based on Kate Davis’s remarkable 2001 documentary of the same name. It followed the final year in the life of Robert Eads, a female-to-male transgender man who found love with his “chosen family” of other transgender folks in rural Georgia even has hospital after hospital refused to treat his ovarian cancer until it was too late.
The Public’s Anspacher Theater, with its steeply raked audience that focuses the audience up close and personal on the action unfolding on the stage, is the perfect setting for this beautiful and heartfelt show, which has been in the works for several years. Annette O’Toole (The Kennedys Of Massachusetts, Smallville), with a Colonel Sanders goatee and halting gait, plays Eads with lingering, unself-conscious affection and grace, and she is matched in those qualities by the rest of the cast, notably Jeffrey Kuhn as Jackson, the outcast former girl whom Robert has raised as his own son, and Jeff McCarthy as Lola, Robert’s strapping, still closeted lover. The story is given added depth and power by Jackson’s decision to undergo phalloplasty despite Robert’s angry opposition.
The book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis are of a piece with the story and include several gems. They songs are played by a bluegrass band whose members also take on roles. James Fenton’s setting is lovely, anchored by the dominating trunk and metallic branches of what we soon realize is Robert’s family tree. It’s a beautiful show; bring the family.