Alex Timbers. Is he the Hal Prince of present day Broadway? And if he is not, it would be interesting to know who is. Because there are very few people who approach the staging of new and established works with such an air of showmanship, intellectual acuity and dazzling comedic spirit. Here Lies Love was astonishing, original and vital;Peter and the Starcatcher really was magical as it told the very theatrical tale of the origins of Peter Pan and the characters who surround him in J.M. Barrie’s whimsical world; and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson put the sex, rock and chutzpah into American history well before Hamilton ignited the Great White Way.
Timbers also made Rocky a musical to remember for the right reasons, not because it was a hopeless knockout blow to the form and he was the directorial guiding force behind the off-Broadway success of Gutenberg!, an imaginative and endlessly virtuosic chamber piece with an emphasis on hats. He has presided over much more than that, but those selections serve to indicate the breadth of his abilities and the far ranging vision he brings to the projects he infuses with life.
He is an exciting director and to see an Alex Timbers production is to embark upon a theatrical journey which may be unexpected but is unlikely to be anything other than enchanting and involving. Like the songstress in Sondheim’s number, he never does anything twice.
So it is with Timber’s reimagining of the Alfred Uhry (Book and Lyrics) and Robert Waldman (Music) musical fairy tale, The Robber Bridegroom now playing at Roundabout’s Laura Pel Theatre. A folksy, country and western, absurdly comic tale of double dealing, robbers, victims and maidens, this is as joyous and frivolous a romp as can ever be expected from musical theatre.
The set by Donyale Werle perfectly captures Timbers’ anarchic approach to the work. It looks like a jumble sale, or the interior of a bric-a-brac shop – lots of texture provided by olde worlde artefacts: candles in glasses suspended by string from the ceiling; brass door handles and the like; a deer’s head; a stuffed turkey, wings akimbo; canvas sheeting; barrels and boxes and trunks. The list goes on. The overall impression is clearly of a travelling troupe of players, assembled to tell tall stories about robbers and brides. It looks and feels perfect; wild, awry, slightly dangerous, calmly creative, affectionately comic.
Werle’s design provides overall pleasure as well as ingenious moments of gleeful joy: the moment when a turkey wing is plucked from above and made into a fan; the birthing of twins, literally a dropping of bundles; the manner of establishing a living, speaking, sarcastic and menacing severed head; shadows that intrigue; a sense of all-pervading hillbilly allure which is positively seductive. It is impossible not to be drawn into this vivid, surreal, make-shift and make-believe world.
Emily Rebholz provides costumes which are dirty, splendid and enchanting all at once. She excels herself with the outfit she provides for the titular character, evoking the sense of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Robin Hood and Jack The Ripper, with a soupçon of Mack The Knife, all at once. The onstage band are splendidly attired; they look terrific and sound even better, providing a twangy, utterly right, underswell of hootenanny exuberance which adds to, never diminishes from, the exultant power of the text, the direction and the performances.
Timbers assembles a vast array of talent to support his vision. Jake DeGroot and Jeff Croiter light the action with a breathless sense of the comic, as well as making character and plot points part of the fabric of the design. There are terrific wigs from Leah J Loukas, splendid sound design from Darron L West and Charles Coes, and some tip-top fight and knife wielding supervised by Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum.
Justin Levine provides exemplary musical direction and the choreography from Connor Gallagher is as inspired and silly as the occasion warrants. The musical is based on a novel by Eudora Welty, and this Timbers version takes more liberties with the original notion than have ever been taken before, with the Playbill revealing that Timbers’ version has the blessing of the original creatives.
If you want a truly fun 90 minutes of musical theatre nonsense, The Robber Bridegroom is the tonic you need. Endlessly inventive, smart and supremely silly, it is a musical riot.
It would be wrong to divulge much about the storyline: so much pleasure is involved in having it unfold before you in all its warty, ridiculous splendour. But it gives not much away to say there are fortunes to be plundered, lives to be lost, robberies and fights to be undertaken, love, births and deaths to be savoured. The narrative is reflective of the manner of playing; duplicity and false facades abound. The central romance is unconventional and faces many silly obstacles. And amongst all this, there is still time to show that one character literally has sawdust for brains. The joy never wanes.
Perhaps Timbers’ greatest skill as a director is his unerring ability to perfectly cast his shows. The Robber Bridegroom is no exception.
Steven Pasquale is the quintessential bad guy hunk as Jamie Lockhart, the man with two faces: one benign and beautiful; one covered in berry juice and reminiscent of the friendliness of Voldemort. He makes the part incredibly and effortlessly sexy, his leathers and tight jeans a triumph of potent possibility. He has a smile that would threaten Kaa and a twinkle in his eye which nods, appropriately, to the knowing feel of the production. Pasquale’s Lockhart knows he is hot and that he is expected to be hot, and he revels in this to tremendous comic advantage.
Despite his supreme understanding of the role and commitment to it, Pasquale is very much a company man here. This is no star turn but a finely calibrated ensemble performance, with Pasquale taking energy and incentives from his colleagues and giving them every appropriate opportunity to do their bit.. There is a true sense of improvisation here, which makes everything edgier, more exciting. It is a similar approach to that taken in Peter and the Starcatcher but here it seems, happily, less disciplined.
Tonight, Pasquale nearly corpsed – well, actually, he did totally corpse following a witty remark from Greg Hildreth – and thereby caused an unexpected and quite magical moment of hilarity and empathy. The whole ensemble was urging him on, both to break out of character and to keep to it, at the same time. They knew either way the audience won. It was a genuinely thrilling moment of theatrical joy, made possible by the complete ensemble feel of the cast.
Pasquale’s vocal supremacy should not go unnoticed. He sings the score with an assured, easy mastery. It does appear he can sing anything in any style, and still smoulder. This is as far away from his performance in The Bridges Of Madison County as might be imagined, but it is just as thrilling, albeit in different ways.
Leslie Kritzer squeezes every ounce of pleasure out of her turn as the black-toothed Salome. She is a powerhouse of energy and zest. She sings the crap out of the score (technical term) and positively gloats in the spotlight. Anna O’Reilly is a pert and very funny Rosamund, and her pairing with Pasquale works easily and well. She too has a fine voice and she makes an endearing point to the triangle that is Salome/Lovecroft/Rosamund.
Other roles are permitted an excess of enjoyment in the playing. Hildreth is pure delight as the dim Goat (that sawdust moment), and both Evan Harrington (the severed speaking head that is Big Harp) and Andrew Durand (he of the curiously braided hair with which he finds Brittney Spears moments) exalt in the outrageous extremes of their silly characters. Durand’s copying of Pasquale’s knife tossing is particularly inspired.
Nadia Quinn, Devere Rogers and Lance Roberts complete the cast and all do excellent work; each gets a moment in the very bright sun and revels in it. Quinn, especially, makes much out of little.
This is just a rollicking, silly treat. It won’t change the world – but its presence makes the world a better place.
Timbers’ reimagining of The Robber Bridegroom sets a new benchmark for the presentation of “old” chamber musicals.