Some things are better left in the vault. Gold ingots, Grandma’s pearls, the folk musical “The Robber Bridegroom,” to name a few.
This 1977 musical boasts a sound pedigree — it is based on a Eudora Welty novella and adapted for the stage by Alfred (“Driving Miss Daisy”) Uhry. The original show starred Patti Lupone and Kevin Kline. Actor Barry Bostwick replaced Mr. Kline as the two-timing scalawag Jamie Lockhart and won a Tony for his performance.
Seeing the revival, staged with tons of volume and enthusiasm by American Century Theater, one can only be amazed that “The Robber Bridegroom” lasted six months on Broadway.
It is a very strange piece, dark in that Southern gothic sort of way championed by Miss Welty and Flannery O’Connor, but at the same time as teeth-gnashingly chipper and Kentucky-fried as something you’d see in Branson, Mo. The effect is something like Antonin Artaud directing an episode of “Hee-Haw.” Folksy is one thing, but this patronizing attempt at capturing Southern culture — which is not all corn pone and rednecks picking their teeth — is not only cliched, but insulting.
It is confounding how theaters manage to find such an astonishing array of off-key singers in the Washington area, rich as it is in choral societies, church choirs and other vocal groups. You hope that is was an off-night: How else can you explain that two of the principal roles were performed by actors who were hitting notes that can only be described as high M over L?
Tara Garwood is lovely as Rosamund, the backwoods Cinderella figure plagued day and night by her evil stepmother Salome (Kathryn Fuller) until the handsome thief Jamie Lockhart (Brian Childers) rescues her from a bored, wretched existence on a plantation on the Natchez Trace. But when she opens her mouth to sing, she shrieks, desperate to find a range, any range. You begin to wonder if this is director DeAnna Duncan’s idea of irony.
But wait. Miss Garwood has a tin ear partner in Miss Fuller, who can’t sing a lick. But she tries to make up for it by caterwauling so loudly the walls seem to sweat. As an actress, Miss Garwood has an engagingly saucy demeanor, playing the part of Salome with gusto without going overboard, but what is she doing in a musical? When a disembodied head (John C. Bailey) is the best voice in the show, you know you’re in trouble.
The bad-pitch fever spreads throughout “The Robber Bridegroom,” with the usually outstanding Brian Childers working so hard to put over his songs that he runs out of steam halfway through, and the chorus hootin’ and hollerin’ as if under the spell of some nasty moonshine.
There are some bright spots — Brian Rodda as the cheerful village idiot, Christopher Gillespie as the dastardly brother of the disembodied head (don’t ask) and Joe Cronin as Rosamund’s henpecked father — but overall, “The Robber Bridegroom” should have auditioned a larger pool of wedding singers.
WHAT: “The Robber Bridegroom,” book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry
WHERE: American Century Theater, Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 10.
TICKETS: $20 to $27
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS