Would I lie to your face? That’s exactly what happened, once upon a Natchez Trace.

When you think about a musical, you think about a full orchestra (or five to seven instruments masquerading as such). You typically don’t think about a 4-piece bluegrass quartet of piano, bass, fiddle, and banjo/guitar. But bluegress music and an old country spirit is at the heart of the musical “The Robber Bridgegroom“, which we saw last night at ICT-Long Beach (and which closes its run today at 2pm). The ICT production moved “Robber Bridgegroom“, which was on Broadway in the 1970s, to a right-size venue where it works perfectly. Combine that with perfect casting, perfect direction, and perfect music, and you have a delightful evening, once upon a Natchez Trace.

The Robber Bridgegroom“, based upon a novel by Eudora Welty with book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry (of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Parade” fame) and music by Robert Waldman, tells the fable of the Robber Bridegroom in 1795 in Rodney’s Landing, Mississippi. It is a fable about, as the song says, “A gent and a robber all in one, A girl who made the moon burn like the sun. A greedy witch, A man that rich. A brain that big, A filthy pig. A talkin’ head.” So let’s meet the characters. The “gent and robber all in one” is Jamie Lockhart, a gentleman robber who is also the bandit of the woods. He charms to get in, and takes what he wants. The girl who made the moon burn like the sun is Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of the “man that rich”, Clemment Musgrove, a wealthy planter, and the step-daughter of the “greedy witch”, Salome, current wife of the planter. Rosamond wants love, and finds it with the bandit of the woods, but doesn’t want to get married to the gentleman her father prefers, Jamie Lockhart, who wants to marry Rosamond not for love, but for the plantation. The “brain that big” refers to the brain the size of a pea belonging to “Goat” the simpleton hired by Salome to kill Rosamond to gain the reward of a suckling pig. The “filthy pig” refers to Little Harp, a thief and robber who travels the country with the talkin’ head of his brother, Big Harp, and who plans to steal both the gold and the girl of the planter. As you can imagine from this cast of characters, we have a backwoods story of greed, love, lust, and desire. Quite a fun tale.

What made this production so great was the combination of great directing by Todd Nielsen and a wonderful ensemble. This greatness starts before the show, where the townspeople (and musicians) wander the audience in character, interacting with the audience and being playful. Goat is out doing magic tricks with a coin. Rosamund is chatting with the front row about her hair. The harps and Jamie are out charming the audience. These people are family from the start, and this is just a friendly storytelling. It is wonderful direction.

The ensemble was also wonderful. From the leads to townsfolk, everyone was great. As Jamie Lockhart, Chad Doreckæ was a charming rogue, a great singer that exuded charm. His match was Jamison Lingle as Rosamud—beautiful in face, beautiful in voice, and playful. What I particularly appreciated about Lingle was her facial expressions: this was an actor who was just having fun with this character, and that fun was infectious. Michael Stone Forrestæ played Clemment Musgrove, the planter, and again he was having fun with his role. Salome, his second wife, was played by Sue Goodmanæ. Strong singing voice, and again having fun with the character. If you haven’t figured out by now, what made this entire ensemble special was that they were having fun with each other, fun with their characters, and fun with the audience. No where was this better illustrated than with Adam Wylieæ‘s Goat, the simpleton who was just having fun enjoying life. As the brigands, Michael Uribes as Little Harp and Tyler Ledon as Big Harp were playful evil: not menacing, but not silly either. The last two characters were catchall roles, but were perhaps the most fun to watch for their facial expressions and side activities: Tatiana Mac as Airie (Goat’s sister) and the Raven, and Teya Patt as Airie and Goat’s mother. These two were in the background, but were so much into their characters that they were the icing on a perfectly constructed production.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Of course, the musicians weren’t bad either. Under the musical direction of Gerald Sternbach (also on piano), the musicians (also in character and dressed as such) were having fun, and constituted a great bluegress quartet. Working with Sternbach was Roman Selezinka (fiddle), Gary Lee (guitar, banjo), and Brad Babinski (bass). The intricate choreography and movement, including square dancing, was also provided by Todd Nielsen, the director.

Technically, the production was spot-on. Stephen Gifford‘s set turned the ICT stage into a two-level barn; when augmented with the props from Gordon and Patty Briles, what was created was a flexible space where two chicken coops and a board, plus a quilt, becomes a bed or a table, and a trunk suddenly contains a talking head. Donna Ruzika‘s lighting was effective and non-obtrusive, creating the mood and space without being annoying. Kim DeShazo costumes were reflective of the time, creative, versitile, and all-together just fun to watch. The sound design by Paul Fabre was, for the most part, great… starting with the cricket noises as you walked into the theatre. The only (very slight) flaw, if any, was a little bit of mic problems as the first act started that made things muffled, but that was quickly corrected (mind you, that was the only flaw). The production was produced by caryn desai, the artistic director; Pat Loeb was the production stage manager.

The last peformance of “The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT-Long Beach is today at 2pm; if you read this in time, go see it. Tickets are available online. ICT has annoucned their 2012 season: “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza (January 24-February 19); “The Fix” with book and lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe (April 24-May 20); “Leading Ladies” by Ken Ludwig (June 5-July 1); “Ghost-Writer” by Michael Hollinger (August 21-September 16); and “Ain’t Misbehavin’“, a musical based on the life and music of Fats Waller (October 9-November 4). We’ll probably go to “God of Carnage“, as we missed it when it was at the Ahmanson, and ICT should do a good job.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend brings “Day Out With Thomas” at Orange Empire (We’re working Veterans Day). Veteran’s Day weekend brings Sylvia” at the Edgemar Center for Performing Arts in Santa Monica on Saturday 11/12; the following weekend brings “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on its opening night, November 19. Karen will also be seeing “Riverdance” at the Pantages on November 16. I’m still waiting to ticket “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson (held for November 25, pending ticketing, hottix on sale for our block on November 8). Thanksgiving weekend also brings the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. The first weekend of December is lost preparing for ACSAC, although I might squeeze in something on Saturday. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The remainder of December is unscheduled, but I’m sure we’ll fill things in for Winter Break. Of course, there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January, right now, is completely open, although the first show of the REP East season will likely be in there somewhere. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.