Having fun shouldn’t be as exhausting as director Alex Timbers makes it out to be in his overly antic production of “The Robber Bridegroom” at the Roundabout Theater Company. Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman adapted their 1975 bluegrass musical from a folksy Eudora Welty novella about a romantic 18th-century bandit who robbed travelers of their money and ladies of their virtue. Playing this swaggering anti-hero, Steven Pasquale takes his place among such stage swashbucklers as Raul Julia, Kevin Kline and Barry Bostwick. But the show is so overdirected, the unassuming charm of the humble material is crushed like a bug.
Up to a point, the director’s trademark shtick (familiar from “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Peter and the Starcatcher”) grounds this Mississippi folk tale in the native storytelling tradition of the region. His directorial catalog of larger-than-life characters, layers of historical visual references and story-theater performance style all suit the mythic origins of this tale.
Set designer Donyale Werle was also Timbers’ collaborator on “Bloody Bloody” and “Peter,” and her busy-busy signature style repeats to good effect here. Emily Rebholz’s rough trade costumes (people sure do love their leather in these parts) also contribute to the sense that 18th-century life along the Natchez Trace was a hotbed of bandits, horse thieves, and chiseling traders — not to mention that bluegrass band lurking in the woods.
Waldman’s music lends itself to the guitars, fiddles and mandolins that country folks still play on their front porches, although it doesn’t seem to have much in common with the centuries-old folk songs that came out of this region. But Uhry’s lyrics have a narrative structure that suits both the storytelling and the individual characters.
“Once Upon the Natchez Trace” gets the show off to a rousing start, with Jamie Lockhart (Pasquale, in fine form and strong voice), the two-faced (one side a saint, the other a devil) Robber Bridegroom introducing the company of scoundrels, thieves, cutthroats, swindlers, fools and liars. Lots of liars. “I never would stand here and lie in your face,” vows Jamie, the biggest liar of them all.
The Bandit of the Woods may be a gentlemen to those he robs of material goods, but his manners toward women are atrocious. He’d rather steal one, he admits, than accept a freely given gift. (“I jist love snitchin’ what ain’t meant for me / the more forbid, the sweeter tastes the pie.”)
The other characters in this tall tale are even more broadly defined. There’s Jamie’s true love, the virginal but eager Rosamund (Ahna O’Reilly); her rich doting father (Lance Roberts), her hateful stepmother Salome (Leslie Kritzer) and those evil brothers Little Harp (Andrew Durand) and Big Harp (Evan Harrington).
But having started from the premise that more is more, Timbers won’t stop with anything less than comic overkill. The characters gain nothing, however, and actually squander their appeal when overplayed in a style so broad it becomes total caricature. Kritzer, in particular, is criminally overworked. She’s initially amusing as Rosamund’s unscrupulous stepmother Salome, but like a prize NFL player continuously pressed back into the game, she staggers under the pressure to take her act higher and higher and ultimately over the moon.
Whatever you call this performance style, Eudora Welty would never let it into the house.