Monday, October 17, 2011

International City Theatre's THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

We were sitting in the audience waiting for The Robber Bridegroom to begin at International City Theatre and the faint aroma of hickory smoke filled the air. I don’t know why it made me so happy but it did. Maybe it was because I’m used to theatres creating pre-show atmosphere in the usual ways with music, sound effects, or visuals…but using the sense of smell and doing it in such a subtle way was…brilliant!

It completely made sense, given that most of the story takes place in 1795 in the Appalachian back country of Mississippi and the Natchez Trace. Director/choreographer Todd Nielsen uses a barn dance setting to bring the audience into the story and that means the energy is high, the barbeque is on and, you guessed it, hickory smoke is in the air. I was hooked. The show is filled with that kind of attention to detail and the result is a rollicking, character-driven tale with down-home country charm and a sweet bluegrass score.

It’s based on a 1942 novella by Eudora Welty adapted from an American folk tale, with music written by Robert Waldman and book & lyrics by Alfred Uhry, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy as well as two Tony Awards for Parade and The Last Night of Ballyhoo.

Bandit of the Wood Jamie Lockhart (Chad Doreck) pretends to be a gentleman of upstanding character who conveniently saves wealthy plantation owner Clemment Musgrove (Michael Stone Forrest) from being killed by the dreaded Harp brothers. Big Harp (Tyler Ledon) does the plottin’ and Little Harp (Michael Uribes) does the swattin’ but the two are inseparable on account of the fact that Big Harp is a severed head, which he’d gotten cut off for stealing. It’s a completely ridiculous and hilarious relationship that’s ripe for comedy, and some pretty great twisted choreography, especially during the pair’s big duet “Two Heads.”

Clemment decides to marry his daughter Rosamund (Jamison Lingle) off to Jamie unaware that the pair have met by chance in the woods and already begun a romance. Neither Rosamund nor Jamie know who the other really is because each is in disguise – he as the robber; she as a simpleton. Further complications occur when Clemment’s second wife Salome (Sue Goodman), uglier and meaner than the first, plots to have Rosamund killed by a dimwitted boy named Goat (Adam Wylie). Luckily Goat really is dumb as dirt and never accomplishes his task, but the lengths he goes to are downright hysterical and Wylie nails the broad comedy at every turn.

Performances are uniformly strong throughout the cast. Doreck makes a dashing “robber bridegroom” and Lingle gets the single most beautiful song in the show, “Sleepy Man,” singing it with a delicacy and heartfelt sincerity that is one example why The Robber Bridegroom is much more that just a yee-haw country romp. Forrest is solid as her rich, though somewhat clueless father, who only has eyes for his beautiful daughter, and Goodman is terrific as the tiara-clad greedy Salome, who surprisingly (and happily) pulls out a gorgeous pop belt when she sings, defying the stereotype of the evil stepmother.

Much of The Robber Bridegroom’s fun comes from the ensemble using objects like boards, crates, and each other to become the visuals and sound effects for the characters’ storytelling. Horses, ferry boats, doors and chase scenes through the woods leap from the audience’s imagination with merely a hint of a suggestion from the cast. Because of the improvisatory nature of the action, the unexpected often happens. When it does, as on opening night when Teya Patt’s hair fell off in the middle of a number, you just smile, pick it up, and put it back on like she did without trying to hide it. They are, after all, actors playing characters, playing characters, and an audience loves to cheer for an actor who let’s them be part of an accidental moment. Go Teya!

Nielsen’s animated staging fits everything together like a puzzle; each piece relates to every other piece it touches and it takes all of them to propel the story forward. He's got a lot of moving parts, and between all the running and dancing and jumping and hollering, he delivers quite a show.

You can’t have bluegrass without a good fiddle player either and musical director/pianist Gerald Sternbach has Roman Selezinka, along with Gary Lee on banjo and guitar, and Brad Babinski on bass. The band is sensational and since they’re on stage with the rest of the actors the entire time, you get to really see them in action.

Stephen Gifford’s set facilitates the action by providing an open two-story rustic design that serves as all the interiors and exteriors, from the barn to the inn to the woods, with stripped logs that disguise the platform supports. It’s playful, fun, and a perfect canvas for this style of musical, along with Patty and Gordon Briles’ props and Kim DeShazo’s costumes.

You'll have a foot-stompin' good time at International City Theatre's The Robber Bridegroom and since the musical isn't often done in Southern California, don't delay. It only runs through November 6, 2011 at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd in Long Beach. Click Here for tickets and more information.

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