CD Review: THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM (2016 Off-Broadway Cast on Ghostlight Records)

by Tony Frankel on February 20, 2017

in CD-DVD

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A SCALED-DOWN ROBBER BRIDEGROOM
STEALS YOUR HEART ON CD

It will always remain one of the great unsolved mysteries in Broadway history. Composer Robert Waldman and librettist and lyricist Alfred Uhry took Eudora Welty’s 1942 novella, “The Robber Bridegroom”, and turned it into a musical that Clive Barnes called “a sort of country and western fairy tale.” After a scheduled 14-performance run on Broadway followed by a successful one-year tour with John Houseman’s Acting Company in 1975 (the cast included Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone), the charming Story Theater-like confection re-opened at Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre on October 9, 1976 to settle in for what pundits and critics thought would be a long stay. Even with Barry Bostwick in an elbow cast from a 12-foot fall he took on stage during previews, the atmospheric show received favorable reviews and everyone reportedly loved it. (I actually house managed in Los Angeles one of the first regional productions in 1978, and never tired of watching both the musical and the rapt audience.)

Still, an audience could not be found. Even with Bostwick’s 1977 Tony win for Best Actor, the show folded at a loss with 145 performances. (Uhry’s Tony-nominated 1975 book was up against Chicago and A Chorus Line, so what’s a first-time playwright to do?)

A recent 40th Anniversary Off-Broadway hit revival may point to the reason that The Robber Bridegroom flopped in 1976. It’s a chamber musical with a country-flavored bluegrass score—definitely not what audiences expected of a Broadway show (the Original Cast Album was fortunately recorded, and the CD with bonus material is now a collector’s item, so it’s tough to find for cheap). This new version highlighted why this is one of the most beloved musicals of theater fans; it also remains refreshingly different from both conventional musical comedy fare and the infiltration of unlistenable pop scores of the past two decades.

Fortunately, this exciting Roundabout Theatre production directed by Alex Timbers has been recorded by Ghostlight Records, and the result, I’m happy to report, is a winner.

The characters of this wonderfully strange, funny, romantic love story include a gentleman-by-day/bandit-by-night hero (an outstanding Steven Pasquale [The Bridges of Madison County] as “Jamie Lockhart”), a wicked stepmother (Leslie Kritzer as “Salome”), and a pair of bumbling villains (Andrew Durano as “Little Harp” and Evan Harrington as his talking severed head brother “Big Harp”). But it’s the songs that are important here: Even within the square-dance context, the variety of songs is staggering: You’ll get everything: Poignant ballads (the lullaby “Sleepy Man” beautifully rendered by Anna O’Reilly as “Rosamund” and the haunting “Deeper in the Woods”); hysterical character-driven tunes (“The Prickle Pear Bloom” and “Two Heads”); and great choral numbers (“Goodbye Salome”).

While this revival should be immediately accessible to newcomers, OBC purists may have to give this a few spins before realizing its specialness. In his liner notes, director Timbers writes that the album’s producers decided to record with as “little isolation as possible” to preserve the “live” nature of the piece. What that means—along with Timbers’ cast reduction from 17 to 9 and Martin Lowe and music director Justin Levine’s new orchestrations, adding piano to the small combo—is a smaller sound than we’re used to on cast albums. It’s still chockablock with magical songs, and you don’t need lyrics because you can understand every word. It’s a shame there isn’t also incidental music recorded, because you will be yearning for more than 43 minutes.

photos by Joan Marcus

The Robber Bridegroom
Roundabout Theatre on Ghostlight Records
original release date September 9, 2016
1 disc | 42:52 minutes
to order, visit Ghostlight

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cris Franco February 20, 2017 at 10:55 pm

I caught this production in New York and hoped they’d record it. Albeit greatly shortened from the original version, the best of the story and score were beautifully incorporated into what I consider the Best Revival of last season. She Loves Me undeservedly won the Tony in that category as there have been better conceived Broadway revivals of She Loves Me. But it’s this new take on The Robber Bridegroom that might literally revive a musical sorely overlooked for decades. The score is a raucous ride into a blue-grass bonanza. Gonna order the CD right away. Thanks for the recommendation!

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