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The too-seldom-performed Broadway hit The Robber Bridegroom, with its toe-tapping old-timey music by Robert Waldman and its irreverent lyrics and brassy book by Alfred Uhry, based on a 1942 novella by Eudora Welty, is a closet musical — if your closet is as big as the closet that housed the shoes of former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos — and, therefore, perfect for Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, which works its theatrical magic in the intimate confines of the tiny 200-seat Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC.
Vivaciously staged by HSN director and choreographer Matthew-Jason Willis as his valedictory production before he moves to New York City, The Robber Bridegroom gets a big bounce from dynamic dance routines that incorporate elements of square dancing, Irish step dancing, and an eclectic selection of other steps. Indeed, the show’s exuberant production numbers give its all-star cast a workout that would leave Jane Fonda bent double and gasping for air.
The Robber Bridegroom showcases the talents of some of the Triangle’s very finest actors and actresses. Moreover, the combined candlepower of the stellar cast of this hilarious homegrown production can probably be seen from the Space Station.
Another highlight of this HSN presentation is the remarkable musicianship of the animated onstage string band — with a distinctly bluegrass flavor — put together by musical director Julie Florin, led by flashy guitarist Baron Tymas, and featuring outstanding old-time fiddlers Joan Beck and Michael Danchi, plucky banjo player Drew Lile, and sure-handed bass player John Simonetti.
The Robber Bridegroom stars dashing leading man Will Ray as the musical’s charismatic two-faced title character — gallant gentleman Jamie Lockhart and his infamous alter ego, that notorious rapscallion, the Bandit of the Woods — and consummate comedienne Andrea Schulz Twiss as the Bandit’s next victim, Rosamund Musgrove, the young romance-starved daughter of dim-witted but fabulously wealthy Mississippi planter Clement Musgrove (Don Bridge) and despised stepdaughter of his avaricious and amorous, but famously ugly second wife, Salome (Susan Durham-Lozaw).
Visiting actor Will Ray and Theatre in the Park regular Andrea Twiss both make auspicious Hot Summer Nights debuts. He plays the handsome heel with panache; and she literally steals the show with her outrageous antics as the poor lovelorn Rosamund, whose chance encounter in the woods with the Bandit, who caddishly steals her clothes and even her undergarments, sending her home buck naked, nevertheless sets her schoolgirl heart aflutter. Later, when Lockhart comes a-courting — minus the blackberry stains on his face that disguise his true identity as the Bandit — Rosamund rebuffs him by acting the fool in a sidesplitting scene.
Don Bridge is amusing as clueless Clement; and Susan Durham-Lozaw is a hoot as sultry Salome, an old-fashioned conjure-woman not shy about casting her black magic spells to rid herself of the pesky Rosamund. Salome even employs the snaggle-toothed half-wit Goat (Matthew Addison) to stalk and slay Rosamund, in exchange for a suckling pig.
HSN veteran Matthew Addison transforms the part of Goat into a star turn; and TIP veterans David McNeil Henderson, Mike Raab, and Lindsay Leb are hilarious as the murderous Harp Gang — Little Harp, Big Harp, and The Raven — who are hell-bent on relieving Clement Musgrove of his fortune — and his life — before the Bandit of the Woods can beat them to the punch. Henderson and Raab have the audience reeling with laughter as the odiferous Little Harp bickers with the stinking severed head of his irascible brother, Big Harp, which he carries around in a trunk; and Leb flutters fetchingly as The Raven and alternates playing that sexy leather-clad character with a crude low-comedy turn as Goat’s surly sister Airie.
Mary Helen Floyd is charming as novelist Eudora Welty — in the show’s Prologue — and deliciously low as Goat’s loathsome mother; and Jesse R. Gephart tickles the audience’s funny-bone with his impish impersonations of a square-dance Caller, the grubby Landlord of a scurvy waterfront inn, and a jaded Flatboatman, who has seen just about everything while plying the shallower waters of the Mighty Mississippi.
Set designer Curtis Lee Jones has devised a towering façade — complete with four of the 22 Corinthian columns that graced the big house on Clement Musgrove’s rundown plantation — to provide a backdrop for the monkey business, circa 1795 and 1942, of The Robber Bridegroom; and costume designer Casey Watkins has stitched up a striking assortment of 18th-century frontier outfits and 1940s fashions to add authenticity to the proceedings.
Thursday night, there were some underlit scenes that require adjustments by lighting designer Jim Frick; and there were too many moments in which portions of vocals, performed without body mics, could not be heard clearly. But adjustments by sound designer Brian L. Hunt and better projection by the performers can remedy those minor flaws in an otherwise outstanding HSN production. The Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy version of The Robber Bridegroom is one of the best locally produced musicals seen on any Triangle stage in 2008 or any other year.
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents The Robber Bridegroom Wednesday-Saturday, June 18-21 and 24-28, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 22 and 29, at 3 p.m. in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601. $27.50 Wednesday-Saturday and $20 Sunday ($17.50 Friday-Sunday only for students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). Progress Energy Center Box Office: in-person sales only. See the presenter's site for other instructions about purchasing tickets.. Group Discounts (for 10 or more tickets): 919/828-3726. Note: There will be FREE complimentary beverages and desserts at all intermissions. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=7563. The Novella (by Eudora Welty): http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/w/welty-novels.html?_r=1&oref=slogin. The Fairy Tale (Der Räuberbräutigam) by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (web page by D. L. Ashliman): http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm040.html.