The plot sounds like a fairly tale: A wistful farm girl and a highway robber fall in love amid a tangle of mistaken identity and the scheming of an evil step-mother.
But "The Robber Bridegroom," the musical opening Thursday at Liberty Hall, says more about America than about old-time fairy tales, at least according to its director.
"It's more than simply taking a Grimm fairy tale and setting it in Mississippi out of sheer perversity," said Paul Meier, a Kansas University assistant theater professor. "In some sense, it's some kind of expression of the American frontier. At times it seems like a kind of epitaph for pastoral simplicity."
THE SHOW will be playing an unusual schedule: After opening Thursday, the cast will perform a concert version of the show Friday during Independence Days in Burcham Park. The show will then play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and at 8 p.m. July 11-13 at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass. The show is a co-production of KU's Summer Theatre and the Liberty Hall Players.
"It's a really nice summer show," Meier said. "The whole idea is to have a town-and-gown production. It has a small cast and a small orchestra, really a bluegrass band, and it doesn't require extensive dancing, like `A Chorus Line.'''
The show's libretto is by Alfred Uhry, who wrote the play and later the screenplay for "Driving Miss Daisy." The heavily bluegrass-influenced score is by Robert Waldman.
"The score is kind of an odd mix," said Michael Boring, the show's music director. "But it is heavily influenced by bluegrass. It's very different from the Rodgers and Hammerstein milieu. Most of the numbers have kind of a hoedown, dance-type sound."
BASED ON a Eudora Welty novella, the show was developed in the mid-1970s by the Acting Company, a theater touring group run by the late John Houseman that launched the careers of, among others, Kevin Kline and Patti Lupone. The musical had a brief run on Broadway in 1977 and has had many productions in community theater and summer stock.
Meier himself played Musgrave, a wealthy farmer and father to the heroine, in a summer stock production a few years ago. Since then, he says he's found different ways of looking at the material.
"That production really didn't get all the juice from the show," he said. "I went back and read the original novella by Eudora Welty. What's really remarkable is that there's a lot more subtlety in the novella that you can bring out in the production."
THE SHOW is set in the 1790s, and chronicles the underhanded attempts of the robber, Jamie Lockhart, to separate Musgrave from his wealth. He and the daughter meet in the woods, but they don't recognize each other from the farm. A whole slew of complications develop among a small group of characters.
"It's really more of a chamber musical,'' he said. "It's unlike any other musical. It's a lovely American piece that doesn't fit into any categories."
What makes this folk tale so American, Meier said, is the fiber behind the characters. These people are sturdy, cunning folk on the edge of the frontier, and that frontier feeling infuses the script.
"IN ONE sense, the robber bridegroom is seducing Rosamund, and she's like the princess in a fairy tale," Meier said. "In the first scene we see her on a balcony in her virginal state. But she's the one who initiates the affair, she has an active involvement in her own epic. And of course the robber bridegroom is something of a symbol of the openness of the frontier."
Meier's even found greater depth in part he played.
"After having read the book, I found out how much more important the Musgrave character is," he said. "He's the moral bedrock of the piece. he thinks no evil of anyone, really."
Meier, a British native, said he fell in love with this inately American musical.
"I've been here so long that I don't think of myself as English anymore," he said.
The show features Sean Gutteridge as Jamie, Amanda Clark as Rosamund and Scott Reeves as Musgrave, with choreography by Ken Stewart, set design by Del Unruh, light design by Mark Reaney and costume design by Delores Ringer. Tickets are available at the Murphy Hall Box Office and at Liberty Hall.