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The Robber Bridegroom, Now at Stray Dog, Is the Lark We Needed

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The world has delivered an abundance of bad news and despair this past year, and St. Louis theater companies have explored that turmoil on stage in numerous productions. These plays have helped audiences see painful issues from other view points, and allowed us to process pain and confusion into understanding. But after several months, the unending cavalcade of misery wears you down. If you go see a play for the twin purposes of entertainment and enlightenment (and you should), non-stop focus on the latter grinds you down.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, "Hey, a comedy appears at long last." Stray Dog Theatre's new production of the musical The Robber Bridegroom is heavily tilted toward entertainment, and it could not have arrived at a better time. Director Justin Been and his exceptionally gung-ho cast romp through this bluegrass fairytale, which made its Broadway premiere in 1975, and their work is a shining beacon of joy in a very dark world.

Rosamund Musgrove (Dawn Schmid) is the beloved daughter of wealthy planter Clemment (Jeffrey M. Wright) and despised stepdaughter of the nasty Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling). Rosamund dreams of love and excitement, while Salome dreams only of getting rid of Rosamund and becoming the rightful queen of her own home.

One fine day, Rosamund encounters the legendary Bandit of the Woods (Phil Leveling) and romance quickly blossoms. The only things standing in the way are the flunkies Salome sends to kill Rosamund, the Bandit's fear of commitment and his secret identity. Mistaken identities, misunderstandings and comedic near-misses abound.

Schmid and Leveling are an enchanting pair, and their voices sound marvelous together during the romantic songs "Deeper in the Woods" and "Love Stolen." He's suitably swashbuckling at all times, while Schmid's Rosamund is no delicate flower to be plucked; a surreptitious affair in the wilds of frontier Mississippi is exactly what she longed for. She plays hard to get only to amplify her new beau's ardor and gives in to him rapturously.

Her stepmother is just as passionate about her own life and desires. Salome brags about how quickly her fingernails grow and the tremendous heat generated by her constantly plotting brain, and wraps herself around handsome stranger Jamie Lockhart (Leveling again) when he visits. Dowling belts out "The Pricklepear Bloom" (a paean to Salome's voluptuous charms and abrasive personality) and nearly shakes down the building in the process. The only time she's louder is when she bellows "bye!" in the faces of people she wishes would exit.

The townsfolk are just as deliciously batty. They populate the background, watching and reacting to all the action along with the audience. Goat (Bryce Miller) is the young simpleton Salome hires to kill Rosamund, but he's ludicrously ill-suited for the job; his equally dense sister Airie (Christen Ringhausen) walks around stiff-legged with a fixed grin plastered across her face, laughing every time Goat misses his target. The hapless outlaw Little Harp (Logan Willmore) stalks the town and wilds arguing with his talking Raven (Susie Lawrence) and his brother Big Harp's decapitated head (Kevin O'Brien), an illusion faked by having O'Brien kneel and place his head inside a box when entering a scene. Together they sing the rollicking duet "Two Heads" and continue their pursuit of helpless women they could despoil. (Little Harp notes that he'll have to do most of the despoiling.) All of this nonsense is enhanced by Tyler Duenow's evocative lighting and Mike Hodges' clever choreography.

If you were so inclined you could analyze the sexual dynamics between Rosamund and the Bandit, and Clemment and Salome, and maybe dig into the casual attitude toward violence in young America. Maybe you'd like to explore the proto-panopticon created by having the ensemble watch the action when they're not participating. You're better off graciously accepting the gift of a thoroughly entertaining musical beautifully brought to life by a talented cast and crew; they don't come around as often as they once did.

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