Theater Reviews: Americana From Below, in The Robber Bridegroom and Southern Comfort

Robber Bridegroom, TheLaura Pels Theatre
Steven Pasquale and friends, in The Robber Bridegroom. Photo: Joan Marcus

The first mistake writers of musicals usually make happens before they write: They choose too good or too bad a source. Too good is the more difficult case; the material, having given them delight as readers, defeats them as adapters. That seems to be the problem with The Robber Bridegroom, the 1975 musical by Robert Waldman (music) and Alfred Uhry (book and lyrics) based on Eudora Welty’s 1942 novella of the same name. The original Broadway production starring Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone ran only two weeks, as part of an Acting Company season; a heavily revised and expanded version returned a year later, starring Barry Bostwick, and lasted a few months. What cursed those outings was Welty herself — not her ghost (she was alive) but her restless spirit; that spirit also haunts the Roundabout’s jolly revival, opening tonight under the clever direction of Alex Timbers. “Jolly” and “clever” are usually fine things; the problem is that they are not Welty things. Making her gothic fairy tale into a musical in the first place, and making it more fun in the second place — the revival is again heavily revised, but this time streamlined — has left it unmoored, deracinated, inauthentic. It’s entertaining, and that’s all it is. 

And how could it not be, with the terrific Steven Pasquale, he of the feral good looks and ravishing baritone, in the title role? Or title roles, perhaps: Pasquale plays a respectable fellow called Jamie Lockhart who also turns out to be a notorious bandit terrorizing the cypress swamps and indigo fields of the Natchez Trace in late-18th-century Mississippi. In his bandit guise he falls for Rosamund, a wealthy planter’s daughter with a wild streak and a grotesque stepmother; in his gentleman guise, having saved the planter from danger, he is offered the same girl — now presenting herself more conventionally — as a reward. The key to the story is that Jamie and Rosamund do not recognize each other in their secondary identities, even though we easily do; Jamie’s bandit incarnation is indicated merely by a few stripes of berry juice on his face and a black hat on his head. Though patently ridiculous onstage, this contrivance is central to Welty’s point. Mature love, her tale argues, means reconciling the danger of eros, which is always to some degree violent and anonymous, with the danger of domesticity, which is always to some degree dull.  

The assembling of a new story structure while gradually removing the bones of the old is a game of theatrical Jenga. Waldman and Uhry, working with Timbers, have untied the tale’s knots and reduced its scope (there are only nine roles, reduced from 20 on Broadway and innumerable more in the Welty) while making room for an attractive score in a mostly bluegrass mode. (The singing — and playing, by a terrific five-man band — is a joy throughout.) But the rhapsodic turbulence of Welty’s story, to say nothing of the violence of the Grimm tales from which she drew it, has been stripped so completely out of the material in the process that it apparently required a new conceptual housing lest it die of exposure. Timbers’s concept, beautifully carried out in the set design of Donyale Werle, is basically a barn dance: We will be told the story of The Robber Bridegroom by a troupe of just-folks actors and musicians whose provenance, to judge from Emily Rebholz’s costumes and their general demeanor, is somewhere between 1890 and never. 

This is entertainingly done. Timbers draws from his usual bag of magic tricks, prop jokes, unexpected taxidermy, and winking meta-theatricality to keep the eye and attention engaged at all times. Even so, the story, having been pulled away from any real engagement with its dark fundamentals, now seems like an excuse instead of the point. That inversion makes for some very uncomfortable juxtapositions, for what are these talented performers making such a stomping, high-proof, Hee-Haw fuss about? A schizoid con man who gets sexual pleasure only from rape? I’m not sure that story should have been made into musical comedy in 1975; making it a better one now only makes it worse.

* * *

Southern Comfort, another bluegrass musical opening tonight, this one at the Public Theater, also has impeccable pedigree and a transfer problem. It is based on a documentary by Kate Davis that chronicles the final year in the life of Robert Eads, a transgender man dying of ovarian cancer. Like the movie, which won a Grand Jury prize at the 2001 Sundance Festival, the musical dwells heavily on the irony of Eads’s diagnosis, and the questions it raises about biology and identity. One of his trans male friends, here called Jackson, finds meaning in the fact that Eads’s cancer has arisen in “the last and only part o’ you that’s still female.” On the other hand, Jackson is saving money for a phalloplasty, a procedure Eads objects to because it “reduces gender back to what’s between the legs.” 

If the musical sometimes seems like a Queer Studies seminar, at other times it seems like a pamphlet on the prejudice suffered by trans people. Eads is denied treatment by medical practices in his rural Georgia town; his parents insist on calling him Barbara, not Robert, even as he’s dying. His “family of choice,” a group of mostly trans friends who meet one Sunday a month for potluck, face problems that are just as wrenching but redundantly similar. And though the show is given the armature of the changing seasons, and a dramaturgical destination in the (real) Southern Comfort transgender conference in Atlanta, the agenda is too baldly political to support a play, let alone a musical. The book, by Dan Collins, succumbs to a tone of sentimentality and special pleading; the songs, with lyrics by Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis, are pretty but mostly monochromatic. Oddly enough under the circumstances, they are also too generic. (They are filled with snorey clichés like “Some say this might not be normal but home is right here.”) This leaves the cast, led by Annette O’Toole as the wiry, bantam Eads and Jeff McCarthy as his big-boned girlfriend, working hard — too hard — under Thomas Caruso’s stiff direction, which calls for a lot of unprovoked emphasis and indicated bonhomie. (It’s a telling problem that one often has trouble locating the actors on James J. Fenton’s overbusy set.) If worthiness were the same as stageworthiness, Southern Comfort would be as effective as its source. But this is material that, however much it cries out for justice, simply doesn’t sing. 

The Robber Bridegroom is at the Laura Pels Theatre through May 29.
Southern Comfort is at the Public Theater through March 27.

Theater: The Robber Bridegroom, Southern Comfort