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Musical Adaptation of Eudora Welty’s First Novel Receives Rollicking Off Broadway Revival

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The stage adaption of Eudora Welty’s 1942 novella “The Robber Bridegroom” just opened in a rip-roaring, high-spirited and rollicking Off Broadway revival that’s become the backwoods hoedown party of New York’s theater season.

Miss Welty’s story is loosely based, or as she was fond of telling her students and admirers, “inspired by” the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, whom may have been inspired by Shakespeare.
Her forte was writing about the South. It paid off handsomely. She won a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter. Her prodigious literary achievements led to President Carter awarding her our highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.

In The Robber Bridegroom, her first novel beyond collections of short stories, she transposed her “Southern folk tale” to the 18th Century in her beloved Mississippi and set it the Natchez Trace. In addition to the Grimm connection and nods to The Bard, the story is steeped Mississippi folk lore and classical myths dating to the 1800s.

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This irreverent, playful, and at times raunchy tribute to the con men, hucksters, scoundrels, thieves, cutthroats, swindlers, fools, and liars that shaped our great nation has book and lyrics by Tony Award, Oscar, and Pulitzer Prize winner Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy; Parade) with music by Robert Waldman.

The revival is the first in New York since its 1975 premiere, which was produced by the controversial John Houseman, who’d come up the ranks working with Orson Welles and his famed Mercury Theatre [including the radio broadcast that stunned America, The War of the Worlds] during the Depression to become a producer of classic films and head of Julliard’s drama department. He’s probably best known for his Oscar-winning role as the no-nonsense profession in 1973’s “The Paper Chase.”

It opened to decent reviews, but audiences didn’t take to it – even with up and coming Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone in the leading roles, or its bluegrass score. The show closed after two weeks. However, the national tour was so successful that The Robber Bridegroom returned to Broadway a year later; but only for a three-and-a-half month run.

It appears the third time is the charm. The revival, trimmed to 90 minutes, no intermission – with some of the original’s darker shades deleted, has received mixed to rave reviews. Audiences are loving it. You might think someone pitched a tent for a down-home revival. Standing ovations in New York theater have become standard as opposed to an exception, but here ticketholders not only stand but also clap their hands, stomp their feet, cheer, and whistle.

Tony Award-nominated director Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher; HBO’s The Pee-wee Herman Show) has been passionate about bringing the musical back for over a decade.

His wildly creative and thoroughly entertaining concept isn’t your grandmother’s Robber Bridgegroom. It might be described as Hee Haw by way of the Grand Ole Opry. Timbers, the five-member onstage band, and his game cast, led by raffishly dashing Stephen Pasquale (Broadway leading man and recent star of FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and Showtime’s Billions), pull out all the stops.

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In the musical, Clement Musgrove, the wealthiest planter on the Trace has a fateful meeting with villainous Big Harp, who’s out to steal his money. He’s saved by swaggering Jamie Lockhart, unbeknownst to him, “The Bandit of the Woods,” whom he invites to meet and, hopefully, court the daughter he dotes on. Lockhart seizes upon the opportunity as one to make off with a big haul. However, he meets his match with Musgrove’s second wife, the wanton, unscrupulous Salome, who steams with jealousy over the bane of her existence, lovelorn stepdaughter daughter Rosamund, a not-so-innocent innocent who sets a trap to marry Lockhart.

The show takes place on one set, designed with great folly by Donyale Werle, that’s half barn and half ramshackle plantation general store with an amazing array of everything imaginable hanging from the rafters.

Co-starring among the all-singing, all-dancing cast are Ahna O’Reilly as Rosamund and musical comedy veteran Leslie Kritzer as Salome. There’re a number of raucous comic performances, but none come close to Kritzer’s delightfully devilish antics — to the point of eating every bit of scenery that’s not nailed down.

Some critics sniped at how over-the-top the show is. Variety, the show business trade, quipped, “[It’s] so over directed, the unassuming charm of the humble material is crushed like a bug.” Another review asked, “Do you like your corn pone on the salty side? … Served with country ham, beefcake, and cheesecake, with, of course, plenty of moonshine to wash it all down? If that’s what your robust palate craves, you’ll be happy to hear that a hot dish of such fare is available.”

Maybe it’s time for a show that, as noted by the New York Times reviewer, has a whole lot of twanging going on and isn’t asking audiences to think too deep. He added, “It clomps, two-steps and square dances along its relentlessly exuberant way, with sprightly choreography and rowdy barn-dance music. [It’s] a welcome respite for theatergoers who have yet to acquire a taste for energetic hillbilly hokum.” Another called the show “A goofy, high-spirited hootenanny. It’s a mighty Mississippi of fun.”

The Robber Bridegroom, a limited engagement set to play through May 29, is at Roundabout Theater Company’s Laura Pells Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. To book tickets, call (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.


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Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline.

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