Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Robber Bridegroom
The great Southern writer Eudora Welty penned the original novella, and Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night Of Ballyhoo) wrote the highly atmospheric book and lyrics, with seamlessly evocative music by Robert Waldman. The Mississippi-based show (set in 1795) was nominated for "Best Libretto" after it opened on Broadway in 1975. And while the story wears thin, the performances, and the music, never do.
Somehow it's all light and genuinely funny, and has an entire inner logic and reason that's shared equally among all the characters. That coherence is palpable at every moment of the show, thanks to director Been and choreographer Mike Hodges, who keeps things energetic, even when the music threatens to lull us to sleep near 10 p.m. with its soft melodies. The entire ensemble works very adeptly to counter that soporific effect with lively energy and exactly the right sense of humor for the material at hand.
Phil Leveling, so powerful as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar at the same venue back in April, is the smooth anti-hero of the title here. Though he's always elegant, as Eudora Welty's gentleman thief, physically he resembles John Cleese. And Dawn Schmid is excellent as the sweet, funny daughter of a wealthy tobacco farmer, who's played by stage-stalwart Jeffrey M. Wright. But the wicked stepmother is the show's star turn, riotously brought to life by Sarah Gene Dowling, a towering figure in a ruthless, giddy performance. I am informed by a friend that the whole show depends on this one role, Salome. So, thank goodness for the whackadoodle genius of Ms. Dowling.
Logan Willmore and Kevin O'Brien are a great team as the dumber, competing thieves, Little Harp and Big Harp (the latter existing as a severed head in a box). And Bryce Miller ("A Simpleton") is a delightfully dimwitted boy named Goat, whose sister Airie is played by young Christen Ringhausen. Susie Lawrence is part of the oddly hilarious, rustic chorus, but also doubles as a talking raven, in a clever reversible costume by Artistic Director Gary F. Bell. It's still a mystery to me why every comedy doesn't have such all-encompassing inner life, a kind of rampant, invisibly reinforced exuberance. (Many Stray Dog musicals actually have had this, and I've grown to take it for granted.) This very successful Robber Bridegroom would be a perfect companion to Disney's Aladdin or The Little Mermaid. Though, in this case, cartoon animation would probably be redundant.
How all these daffy people came to exist in Rodney, Mississippi, is explained away in the prologue, as a byproduct of the Mississippi River shifting its course away from the town. And, apparently, anyone who had any brains at all simply got up and moved away, too, once the river port dried up. Likewise, the story dries up early as well, and the first act may be ten minutes too long. On the other hand, however, Stray Dog has found a way to run the air conditioning quietly during a show, so the climate indoors is very amenable, at last, in the midst of summer. And though it's an ephemeral show (not withstanding the maleficent Ms. Dowling), nearly every song adds a new layer, and every big chorus number is beautifully stagedat least as exciting as any opera or ballet you'll see this year, in building a wonderfully improbable world of its own.
The Robber Bridegroom, through August 18, 2018, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.