"The Robber Bridegroom," a musical comedy based on Eudora Welty's novel of the same name, is meant to be taken on several levels. That's the overwhelming reaction I had to the play as it was brought to life Friday at Colonial Players of Annapolis, where it will play through May 27.
On one level, it's a fable about a doting Southern father, his shrewish second wife, his spoiled, nubile, high-spirited daughter and her opportunistic, thrill-seeking suitor.
Working their way into the love story set in 18th century Mississippi are supernatural presences.
On another level, musically, "The Robber Bridegroom" is something of a bluegrass revue centered around a countrified score that's feisty and fun, if not exactly memorable. The lyrics are put across by enough rural Southern accents to make a "Beverly Hillbillies" episode sound like a disquisition on Shakespearean rhetoric.
On its deepest level the show ponders our strange predilection for deception when, in truth, emotional progress depends on our ability to toss duplicity off the rear of the sleigh as we move through life.
Though the Colonial Players' "Robber Bridegroom" has a way to go technically, director Debbie Barber has assembled a talented, funny cast that won over its opening night audience with equal parts brio and comic flair. Despite a fair number of musical fluffs from the cast, which is filled with bluegrass neophytes, and from the accompanying quartet of guitars, fiddle and bass, which sounded tentative through much of Act I, the final results were satisfying.
The show's dominant player is Sheri Kay Kuznicki as Rosamund, the planter's daughter whose love wins over her caddish suitor, who cares more for fortune and adventure than love. She dominates the production with her antics. Whether cozying up coquettishly to Daddy, squabbling with her stepmother, played to a shrewishly Southern tee by the perennially hilarious Diana Wolf, or adapting a dim-witted persona in an attempt to discourage unwanted advances, the stage is all hers whenever she takes it.
Sean Rivers, a Colonial Players newcomer, stays right with her as Jamie, the dashing lout who'd rather love wantonly than well.
I must also single out Jerry Vess, whose timing and flair for forging audience connections turn his malevolent "Little Harp" character into a comic mainstay of the show. Kudos must also go to Jason Vellon, a 19-year-old actor who I think is quickly becoming one of the cheekiest, funniest comedians on the local community theater circuit. He had the audience howling at his portrayal of "Goat", the simpleton engaged by Stepmomma to ruin Rosamund's chance for happiness, once and for all.
The show's square dancing numbers seemed cramped to me, with an awful lot of bodies moving somewhat stiltedly across Colonial's limited space. Everyone would have benefited immensely from a few more hootenannies through the score, and balance problems crop up as instruments overwhelm voices, especially those pointed away from one's seat. Lyrics are frequently inaudible.
But by the end of the show, I was applauding as enthusiastically as anyone in the house. A difficult, rather off-beat show had been brought to life with integrity, talent and commendable flair by a gifted group of actors who had given it their all. What was not to like?