FIDDLE FADDLE

The Robber Bridegroom works hard at telling everyone they're having a good time. The characters are all eccentrics, the pratfalls continuous, the musical numbers relentless.

But all this in-your-face cheeriness can't really help a show like The Robber Bridegroom, presented by ASU's Department of Theatre and Lyric Opera Theatre. It churns mindlessly on without letting the audience decide for itself whether the characters are likable or the plot worth the effort. The story is based on a novella by Eudora Welty, who has specialized in simple, atmospheric tales set in the South. The Robber Bridegroom reaches back to Mississippi's riverboat days, with a plot concerning a planter with a beautiful daughter and a scheming second wife, and the bandit who seduces the daughter while in disguise.

Made into a musical in the 1970s, with book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry and music by Robert Waldman, the show resides in that Disneyland netherworld, the happiest place on Earth. As at Disneyland, after a while, you want to scale the walls.

Welty was able to use her superb prose to underscore the comedy and satire of her tale, but musicals don't include subtlety in their bag of tricks. This Robber Bridegroom puts its cavalcade of buffoons through their paces, which often degenerate into comedy shtick and retain little of the historical charm of Welty's piece.

As with many 1970s musicals, the score comes from that limbo in which the American musical comedy still lives. Once the changing taste in popular song passed Broadway by, show tunes stopped being hits or even being identified with any particular musical style. "Send In the Clowns," from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, or "Memory," from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, were popular in a Billboard sense, but both Sondheim and Webber have worked hard through several decades to literally create their own musical genres, going about their business no matter which way the pop winds blow.

A good score in a musical can hide many faults, but The Robber Bridegroom isn't grounded in any coherent style, and this failing quickly reduces the show to mediocrity. The music is country--some of the time--but only to the extent that fiddles saw and banjos pluck in the upbeat numbers while cast members get to hook their arms and stomp their feet. It's country music Lawrence Welk style, with no I've-lost-my-man wailing or even Nashville corn. The ballads employ a folk-music feel, but again, the soul of the genre is missing, and what's left sounds like the interminable plodding of verses and choruses found in Catholic guitar Masses. The Robber Bridegroom isn't the kind of show to inspire you to rush out and buy the cast album, or even to hum the tunes as you head for the exit.

Musical-identity crisis aside, the performance of the score was problematic. Director Graham Whitehead chose to locate the seven musicians and their conductor onstage under the platform set. An atmospheric touch in the beginning, it unfortunately allowed the audience's attention to wander to the bored-looking musicians (musicians always look bored when they're not playing) instead of sticking to the action the director would have preferred us to focus on. Acoustically, the arrangement was also a bad idea; the small ensemble sometimes overpowered the singers.

The mortal sin, though, was having the conductor onstage rather than down in the pit for the benefit of the singers and dancers, where she could have kept them on the right track and provided moral support. In this day and age, real musicians are a financial luxury, but this production of The Robber Bridegroom might as well have come with canned music for all the good the warm musical bodies did. There's a certain thrill when a singer and a conductor connect--an infusion of energy that pumps up even the most meticulously rehearsed production number. Lacking that, the pacing varies from languorous to kamikaze, everyone hoping they'll all end up in the same place. A strong conductor is a musical's best friend, and this production could have used one.

The Robber Bridegroom ends up being a why-bother kind of musical. The show steamrollers everything into a shrill sameness, when the material deserved more.

 
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