If I mentioned America’s first serial killers, a decapitated head, a homicidal stepmother and rape, chances are you wouldn’t immediately think of “Toe-tapping good fun.” But one of the strengths of the modern American musical theatre (and let’s put that from about the 1940’s on) is the dizzying heterogeneousness of creative sources it draws inspiration from: Commodore Perry’s 1853 forced Westernization of Japan (Pacific Overtures), a 1992 headline story from the Weekly World News (Bat Boy), a Stephen King best seller (Carrie), a low-budget flick by schlockmeister Roger Corman (Little Shop of Horrors), a comic hero (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), the history of assassinations in America (Assassins), and James Michener’s dark, troubling Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirs of the Pacific War (South Pacific.)
Uniquely representative of this tread is “The Robber Bridegroom” now enjoying a rare mounting at Long Beach’s International City Theatre. Based on Eudora Welty’s 1942 debut novel of the same title, the book baffled admirers of Welty’s deeply psychological short stories; here was a confusing concoction of themes and characters plucked from works of the Grimm Brothers and retold folk tales of the humid and forested delta of 18th century Mississippi. Fans of Welty usually gloss over “The Robber Bridegroom” much the same way your average bardolator is quick to dismiss “Pericles, Prince of Tyre”.
But Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman it seemed were not among those dissenters. Uhry, a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, like Welty herself, is perhaps best known for his play “Driving Miss Daisy” and is one of the rare writers to be awarded an Oscar, a Tony and a Pulitzer.
He and Waldman had collaborated once before on the ill-fated 1968 musical “Here’s Where I Belong”. Based on John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”, the show closed after opening night and is still considered by some Broadway aficionados to be among the worse musicals ever. Happily, their second effort, “The Robber Bridegroom” in 1975 met with greater success and began the careers of its young stars Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone (who received her first Tony Award nomination.)
Uhry provided book and lyrics, embracing both the whimsical and grotesque element of Welty’s novel while Waldman’s score manages to capture the ballads of the period soaked with the conjoined tonality of African and Irish heritages.
The plot of the play follows the exploits of Jamie Lockhart (a dashing and dancing Chad Doreck), the rapscallion Bandit of the Wood who befriends the rich plantation owner Clemment Musgrove, (a solid and outstanding upstanding Michael Stone Forrest) and plans, under the ruse of wooing his daughter Rosamund (an angelic Jamison Lingle) to rob him of his wealth. Rosamund however is decidedly cool to the courting of Jamie’s straight lace alter-ego, and feigns dim-wittedness while masking her physical allures because she has fallen in love with the Bandit of the Wood – she doesn’t recognize the disguised Lockhart, he doesn’t see thru Rosamund’s pretense. Confusing the issue further is Salome (Sue Goodman a perfectly “prickly pear”), Clemment’s second wife who conspires the demise of her detestable stepdaughter.
Lurking sinisterly in the shadows are the Harp brothers, Big Harp (Tyler Ledon) and the younger Little Harp (Michael Uribes). The “Bloody Harpes” brothers were actual personages, who during the American Revolution served in a Tory militia and under the facade of fighting for the crown, raped and murdered their way across North Carolina. Before finally coming to their just deserts, the older Micajah and younger Wiley Harpe were said to have murdered 40 to 50 men, women and children earning them the dubious distinction of the nation’s first serial killers.
In the play they are only marginally slightly less vile, always on the lookout for a throat to cut or maiden to deflower; however, Big Harp, the brains of the duo, does suffer from a slight disadvantage in his murderous inclination. At some point prior to the play his head was cut off from his body and now resides in a trunk that his younger brother totes about. Ledon and Uribes are deliciously dastardly and provide the show with its most amusing duet. Filling out the cast are Tatiana Mac as a talking Raven who succeeds in provoking the other characters even without a bust of Pallas to perch on. A rubber legged Adam Wylie excels as Goat the wrong half of a half-wit who Salome ensnares in her murderous plot. Finally, there’s also Teya Patt as the wonderfully wizen hag and mother of Goat.
The company is more than up to the musical demands of the show, and director-choreographer Todd Nielsen stages the show with a sure and skilled hand. Stephen Gifford’s set design, Donna Ruzika’s lighting, and Kim DeShazo’s costuming are all first rate, contributing to another production that the International City Theatre can be justly proud of and its audiences can be assured of delighting in.
The Robber Bridegroom
International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
300 East Ocean Boulevard
Long Beach, CA 90802
October 14th thru November 6th
Thursday – Saturday 8:00pm
Sunday 2:00 pm