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The Washington Post

American Century's Rural Rowdiness

By Tricia Olszewski
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 1, 2003; Page C04

The American Century Theater's production of "The Robber Bridegroom" may celebrate the hoedown, but gentle theater-goers ought to be warned: Things get a bit gangsta in this telling of the legend of Jamie Lockhart, an artful bandit who inadvertently falls in love with one of his victims. Trouble is, old habits die hard, and as Lockhart knocks the lovely Rosamund out cold in order to get a little love, he confesses with a shrug, "I never was a courtin' guy."

But then he breaks out into song, and his transgression seems forgivable. Set in 1820 Rodney, Miss., "The Robber Bridegroom" is a rousing rootsy musical based on a Eudora Welty novella, which in turn was inspired by a Grimm fairy tale.

Alfred Uhry's Tony-nominated adaptation debuted on Broadway in 1975 starring Kevin Kline and closed after 14 performances; a year later it had a more respectable run with Barry Bostwick and has allegedly enjoyed a cult following since.

Here Brian Childers takes on the role of Lockhart, whose inclination to "steal with style" leads him to develop a relationship with Clement Musgrove (Joe Cronin), a wealthy planter who reckons Lockhart to be an honest gentleman and intends him for his daughter, Rosamund (Tara Garwood).

Rosamund's brash stepmother, Salome (Kathryn Fuller), meanwhile, wants to do away with the golden-haired reminder of Clement's first wife and repeatedly sends Rosamund out into the woods to gather herbs and tempt fate. Rosamund does eventually meet harm in the form of a masked Lockhart, whose lecherous theft of her new dress and gold-laced underthings gets the bored girl's heart thumping. When a cleaned-up Lockhart later visits the Musgrove home to case the family's goods, Rosamund slips into full-on bumpkin mode in order to thwart her dad's wedding plans, and the stage for mistaken identity is set.

Director DeAnna Duncan frames Lockhart's story with a history-museum conceit -- the actors are already posed about the stage as the audience settles and they become animated as the tale unfolds. And the production is certainly a live one: Except for the more refined Lockhart, the mood of "Robber Bridegroom" is all yee-haw and silliness, with minor characters including a churlish disembodied head, the head's dim outlaw brother, and an eager-to-please simpleton named Goat. While Childers and Co. keep the audience's attention by singing and dancing in the foreground, an energetic ensemble thickens Uhry's darkly comic tone, serving alternately as chorus, props or amused bystanders.

The Helen Hayes Award-winning Childers is magnetic, lending Lockhart the proper roguish charm to win audience favor despite his villainy. Also strong is the Katey Sagal-esque Fuller, whose bawdy-but-sharp Salome turns the Musgrove household into a Deep South "Married With Children."

A handful of quiet but erotically charged moments are the production's only missteps, with plaintive piano and violin accompanying ensemble players who somewhat oddly turn from buoyant to writhing as the show's lustful side is explored. Mostly, though, the musical numbers are well-choreographed and entertaining, and even if some of the solo singers have trouble hitting a difficult note now and then, together they knock "Robber Bridegroom's" many show-stoppers out of the park.

The Robber Bridegroom, by Alfred Uhry. Music by Robert Waldman. Directed by DeAnna Duncan. Lighting, Marc A. Wright; sound, David Meyer; music director, Jenny Cartney. Through Oct. 11 at Gunston Theater II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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