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The Robber Bridegroom

Reviewed by Richard Green

The Robber Bridegroom
Ember Hyde and Jeffrey Pruett
I made a horrible mistake before going to see the new show at New Line Theatre: I read the original novella, by Eudora Welty. The book and the play are as different as the North Pole is from the South - sharing only the shape of the earth in between. My intentions were good: New Line producer/director Scott Miller is renowned here for his fealty to the source material, and I thought I could show the same level of scholarship. In this case, however, Alfred Uhry, the adaptor for the stage, was not as idealistic.

The 1975 musical (which was nominated for a Tony and a Drama Desk award) is not the romanticized, wry, fairy-tale South of Ms. Welty, but something more like the mocked, deserving poor of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road. Uhry's version, passionately brought to the stage this month in St. Louis, is merely a good model for bad times: brash and bawdy and full of low expectations.

There is one moment in New Line's production that is indisputably true to Welty's 88-page story, and that moment is really quite subversive in a re-imagining as broad as this one. It comes during the song "Deeper In The Woods," beautifully sung by Jeffrey Pruett, when Rosamond (Leah Schumacher) trails Jamie (Michael Heeter) through a dark forest. It is as haunting and romantic as it ought to be, in the midst of a script that seems desperate by comparison. For this beautiful moment, the credit must go to director Miller.

But here we are. The indomitable Mr. Miller has taken what he's got and whipped his cast into a proper frenzy of comic cataclysm. There are some good signs of structural adaptation, as in the merging of the character of Mike Fink, a bandit, into an amalgam with Little Harp (the eccentric and carnivorous Gregory Hunsaker), another highwayman. Like Mr. Fink, a pack of outlaws and a tribe of Indians also get their pink slips in the re-write by Mr. Uhry.

Some of the original 'storybook' quality of the novella is suggested by the use of narrative - and by symbolic pieces: a woman in black (Jamie McKittrick) bears a tree limb topped with a stuffed raven, and actors with leafy branches become the forest. Prop manager Pat Edmonds also does a very good job creating a severed head that talks (with the help of actor Drew Somervell). But the characters hoot and holler their way through the outline of Ms. Welty's creation without the benefit of her wry humor or elegant dialogue.

As Jamie Lockhart, the fabled bandit of the woods Mr. Heeter, is pleasant, but not the kind of singer New Line usually strives to obtain. As Rosamond, Ms. Schumacher is very funny, but in a campy way that owes its style to satire more than anything else. Her singing, as you would expect, is very fine, as is the four-man bluegrass ensemble backing up the show. Ember Hyde displays wonderful commedia styling as the wicked step-mother, Salome. This fulfills Mr. Uhry's expectations, at least. And, to give credit where credit is due, Thomas Conway strikes a true chord with kind-hearted innocence as Rosamond's father. In the song "Marriage Is Riches," he reaches a giddy and charming minstrel fever, selling matrimony to the king of the bandits. Conway's performance, and his character, would probably be at home on either page or stage. Kimi Short and Christine Brooks are remarkably funny in their supporting roles.

Director Miller, of course, understands what he's got himself into. He sets the tone with a "time of fellowship," where the actors meet and greet the audience, and it's all very folksy and warm, with a great big "Howdy!" in the fashion of Minnie Pearl. Then, a curiously uninspiring piece, "Once Upon A Natchez Trace," introduces the cast. The music is by Robert Waldman, with lyrics by Mr. Uhry, but, as my companion in the audience suggested, the songs don't do much to move the plot along. In any case, they are accomplished with the usual New Line professionalism. The story is allowed to proceed, and Messrs. Hunsacker, Pruett, and Somervell are excellent in the next song, "Two Heads," within the context of this entertainment.

Actors often come up with big, funny business that betrays the material, and sometimes their director will acquiesce in the interest of sure-fire audience response. I have grown to believe Mr. Miller to be far above this. Here, it's the playwright himself who has gotten out of hand, turning something like Steinbeck into something like dinner theater.

There is a story of an actress who was cast as New Line's Sally Bowles a few years back in their production of Cabaret: she was (to all reports) quite a good singer, who'd been told by Mr. Miller she must play a character who is NOT a good singer. The local legend has it that young lady was quite dismayed, at having to "sing down." But that was a production that managed to honor the legacies of Kander and Ebb, at the same time it paid homage to the original writer, Christopher Isherwood.

The Robber Bridegroom continues through March 26th, 2005 at the Art Loft Theatre, 1529 Washington, in downtown St. Louis. For ticket information, call (314) 534-1111. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com


Photo: Michael Daft


-- Richard T. Green

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