By Lynn Venhaus
For a rooting-tooting time at the theater, head yonder to the Tower Grove Abbey, where wacky hi-jinx are afoot in the Southern-fried “The Robber Bridegroom.”
Stray Dog Theatre’s colorful cast realizes that many people are unfamiliar with this mid-1970s musical based on Eudora Welty’s first novella, which is adapted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so they are eager to please, and work overtime to charm the crowd.
The goofy story, set in 18th century Mississippi, is not fooling anybody but the ensemble, who have so much fun with this campy tall tale of mistaken identities and nefarious motives.
In 1795, the hero-outlaw Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling) swaggers in to Rodney, Miss., looking for his next swindle. As his alter-ego, he is The Robber in the Woods, a Robin Hood-like figure who disguises himself with berry juice.
He’s unrecognizable to Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), the beautiful daughter of the richest planter, Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey Wright). They fall in love during the charade, which leads to hilarious complications.
Mix in an evil stepmother, the overbearing Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling); a mischievous bandit Little Harp (Logan Willmore); his brother Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), who is only a head in a briefcase these days; a pea-brained flunky named Goat (Bryce Miller); his sister Airie (Christen Ringhausen); and a talking raven (Susie Lawrence), and these zesty ingredients create farcical nonsense.
Rounding out the rambunctious ensemble is Chris Ceradsky, Shannon Lampkin and Rachel Sexson as residents of Rodney.
Director Justin Been has inventively staged the show to bring out the cast’s playful nature, and swiftly spins the action in a captivating piece of “story theater.”
The clever Tony Award-nominated book and lyrics are written by Alfred Uhry, who later became famous for his “Atlanta Trilogy” – the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Tony Award for Best Play in 1997; and the Tony-nominated libretto to “Parade” in 1998.
The bluegrass-tinged music score is by Uhry’s frequent collaborator, Robert Waldman, and music director and pianist Jennifer Buchheit’s work captures its lively spirit. Her exceptional band gets the show off to a rollicking start and keeps up the momentum throughout – fine work by Steven Frisbee on fiddle, Mallory Golden on fiddle and mandolin; Michael Kuba on banjo, cello and guitar; Marty Lasovica on guitar, and M. Joshua Ryan on acoustic bass and bass ukulele.
Choreographer Mike Hodges freshens up old-timey western dances and gives the ensemble a chance to kick up their heels in their period-appropriate garb designed by SDT’s artistic director Gary F. Bell.
The entire cast speaks in exaggerated Southern drawls and projects the show’s light-heartedness out of the gate with “Once Upon the Natchez Trace.” They remain exuberant in “Flop Eared Mule,” “Goodbye Salome” and “Leather Britches.”
The harmonious ensemble’s “Deeper in the Woods” is a lush, ethereal ballad that shifts into a full-fledged romance between Jamie and Rosamund, while “Where, Oh Where” is a foot-stomping number featuring everyone’s nimble voices.
Impressive newcomers Logan Willmore, as Jamie’s rival Little Harp, and Bryce Miller, as the imbecile Goat, display slick comic timing that accentuates the breezy romp. Their duet, “Poor Tied Up Darlin’” is a hoot, with assist from a game Christen Ringhausen.
Versatile Kevin O’Brien is funny as the talking head Big Harp, and both he and Miller are hilarious in “Two Heads.”
Veterans Phil Leveling, Dawn Schmid and Jeffrey M. Wright superbly inhabit their characters.
As the rascally Jamie, Leveling is well-suited to the role both in acting and singing, as his range is spot-on for the vocal demands. He’s appealing in his introduction, “Steal with Style.”
The jaunty role isn’t demanding but allows for mischief-making. In 1977, Barry Bostwick won a Tony as Lead Actor in a Musical for the ’76 Broadway run while in 2016, Steven Pasquale won a Lucille Lortel Award for the Roundabout Theatre off-Broadway revival.
Leveling and Schmid blend beautifully in song, including “Love Stolen.” They have some oomph in their chemistry as a romantic comedy coupling.
Schmid’s positive approach and her beaming smile project a spirit of adventure. No damsel in distress, she shines in “Rosamund’s Dream” and “Nothin’ Up.” In the archetypal fairy-tale princess way, she tussles with Dowling, who wants the golden daughter out of the way.
Dowling has a field day mugging malicious intentions as the over-the-top Salome, spewing venom in “The Pricklepear Bloom.”
Wright plays a blustery rich guy who misses his first wife and puts his daughter on a pedestal. Even though his second wife is a pain, Musgrove’s a people-pleaser and can’t shift gears. Wearing a loud checkered suit, Wright just has a ball cavorting as this gaudy character.
The quartet of Jamie, Musgrove, Rosamund and Salome have fun frolicking in “Marriage is Riches.”
The roots music imbues a feel-good quality while the cast appears to be having a swell time like friends around a campfire.
It is that conviviality one will remember soon after the story fades.
Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Robber Bridegroom” Aug. 2 -18, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, Aug. 12 matinee at 2 p.m. and a Wednesday, Aug. 15 performance at 8 p.m. added, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, 63104. For tickets or more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org
Photos by John Lamb