The bluegrass musical The Robber Bridegroom, an adaptation of the Eudora Welty novella, takes place deep in the hollers of an 18th century Mississippi characterized by our most beloved archetypes: innocent young girls, sinister villains, evil stepmothers, and one particularly charming bandit. It has one foot in the Southern Gothic tradition, the other in a fairy tale, and an arm gleefully waving about in comedy.
Then, of course, there’s the music: challenging fiddle melodies that twist, turn, and gather velocity like a hare escaping a panther, only to slide back down into the warmth of a quiet Southern night.
So although the story is quite simple — a beautiful young girl falls in love with a swashbuckling bandit — the show itself is complex, requiring creative staging, serious vocal skill, and a fairly substantial suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. In its tiny space on Society Street, Threshold Repertory proved itself up to the task of performing this unusual show with an excellent cast, outstanding musicians, and just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek.
The show begins with a musical introduction of the story’s key players, a mix of caricatures and romantic figures who populate the little town of Rodney, Mississippi. The sly bandit Jamie Lockhart meets a rich planter in an inn, and, saving him from a crueler, less adept thief, earning the planter’s everlasting gratitude. The planter invites Lockhart to come to dinner to meet his beautiful young daughter, and Lockhart accepts greedily.
Meanwhile, that beautiful young daughter, Rosamund, is at home with her ugly stepmother Salome (played by a very funny Haydn Haring), who is perpetually trying to find ways to get rid of Rosamund. She sends the girl off into the woods to gather herbs, where the bored Rosamund meets The Bandit of the Woods, who steals all her fine clothing and leaves her naked in the bushes. But unbeknownst to anyone, the Bandit is Jamie Lockhart, only with berry stains on his face. The next night, Rosamund seeks out the Bandit of the Woods, whom she has just recently met as Lockhart at her father’s house, and this time he steals — really is given — more than just her clothes. From there, things get more muddled, and less comic, until finally coming to rest in an ending that smacks just a bit of the Rapunzel story. There’s even a song sung by the villain that will make your skin crawl, with lyrics worthy of a heterosexual version of Deliverance.
The two leads, Garrett Flood as Lockhart and Mary Fishburne as Rosamund, shine so brightly that it was hard to take our eyes off them, even when they were only peripheral to a scene’s action. Flood steals the spotlight in the show’s opening during his short stint as narrator, with a great voice and an air that is every bit the devious, disarming gentleman thief.
He deserves special credit for one moment in particular, one that is pivotal to the storyline but could, given the comedic nature of the show, the many people on stage, and the intimacy of Threshold Rep’s space, easily become an awkward cringe-fest. You guessed it: it’s the deflowering of Rosamund. Flood manages it (no sexism intended, but he is after all the bandit seducer and completely in charge) with gravity and even a little heat, proving that he’s got what it takes to act the romantic lead.
Fishburne is perfect as the mischievous Rosamund, whether she’s hamming it up with her doting father or sneaking off in the night to find her bandit seducer. Fishburne has a truly angelic singing voice that can go from playful, to operatic, to sultry, and luckily it’s put to good use in several solos throughout the show.
Musical director Matthew Rose deserves major credit for his work, especially for leading the large ensemble through one after another of what are seriously difficult songs — it’s hard enough at times to get your ear around some of the melodies, so singing them can be no easy task. The only thing that distracted was the cast’s microphones, which in such a small space seem completely unnecessary. At times they were set uncomfortably loud, and, especially during Fishburne’s singing, gave the voices a technological twinge that took away from the naturalness of the performance. But that is a small criticism for what is, in all, a unique and enjoyable night of storytelling. And if that’s not enough temptation, where will you ever see another bluegrass musical?