Dallas — Everybody loves a good-hearted outlaw, and none have endured so steadfastly in the public imagination as has Robin Hood. That particular Medieval do-gooder, who has survived nine hundred years in literature, song, stage, and cinema, takes the stage once again in Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure, a new musical by playwright Douglas Carter Beane (who also directs) and composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn, now playing in a world premiere production by Dallas Theater Center at Wyly Theatre.
While probably not destined for the canon of masterpieces of the genre, Hood lives up to a strong premise and delivers a message both timely and entertaining. Today, when, as in Plantagenet England (and on numerous occasions since), the rich are getting richer and the poor are looking for an advocate, Hood unashamedly—and engagingly—calls on audience members to keep up the fight against injustice. The quick punchline “Not my king!” the song “Love Begets Love,” a guitar with “This machine kills Fascists” scrawled across it (a nod to social justice troubadour Woody Guthrie), and a quick reference to tolerance for Muslims insert an unmistakable political flavor to the proceedings.
That the show would be both entertaining and thought-provoking comes across immediately in the prologue, in which a montage of excerpts of Robin Hood-inspired literature from across the centuries elides into the narrative at hand, clearly reminding viewers that our vision of Robin Hood is an amalgamation of dozens of folk-tales, poems, novels, and plays accumulating over nearly a millennium. Cleverly plotted mixed signals keep the viewer wondering and thinking. The set, by John Lee Beatty, suggests either a Texas honky-tonk (with live band onstage beneath a neon beer sign), a barn, or a warehouse. Puppets of various styles (rod, shadow, bunraku and others) designed by Richardson native James Ortiz and directed by Ortiz and Stefano Brancato interact with live actors, who in turn take on multiple roles with dashing ease. And Gregory Gale’s costumes further extend the pleasant confusion of eras. Meanwhile, a steady flow of witty anachronisms not only adds to the humor but gives Hood an aura both dreamlike and—though this is not a children’s show by any means—child-like.
Thanks largely to Howard Pyle’s beautifully crafted 1883 novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, the Robin Hood we all grew up with has been a sort of pre-adolescent boy’s vision of masculine camaraderie in the woods, complete with subtly veiled phallic references and safely distant, passive females. Beane and Flinn constantly turn the traditional elements upside down: not once, but twice, Marian, played with spunk and texture by Ashley Park, saves the day—and, in this not-so-subtly feminist version of the tale, she’s a better archer than Robin. Not so admirable is the reshaping of the traditional character of Will Scarlett, who has often been, in past interpretations, a bit of a clotheshorse, as a self-absorbed shopaholic. Though Jacob ben Widmar delivers the part with appealing energy, it’s time to retire this stock stereotype of the foppish gay man to the dustbin, along with Stepin Fetchit, Tonto, and Charlie Chan.
As Robin, Nick Bailey moves and sings with robust agility as Robin, but Austin Scott as a forbidding Sheriff of Nottingham and Ian Ferguson as balladeer Alan A’dale both consistently steal the spotlight. Luke Longacre likewise impresses immensely by not only playing Little John but also by voicing the puppet of the villainous King John. Chris Ramirez plays Friar Tuck, always one of the more fascinating characters in the traditional Robin Hood tale, with perky energy; and Ricco Fajardo, ably playing Gamble Gold, rounds out the cast of male roles.
Actress Billie Aken-Tyers takes on the one pants role of the production as the hapless companion Much. The traditional Robin Hood tale is rather short on compelling female roles, a situation here remedied with several meaty comprimario parts, including Tiana Kaye Johnson as Lady Jane, Beth Lipton as Lady Anne (a role requiring the ability to play the violin), and Alysha Umphress as the unfailingly assertive Meg.
The score, with instrumental parts performed beautifully by the five-member onstage band and on occasion by the acting ensemble, presents the major disappointment of Hood. Early on, the lament “Take Me Home” feels particularly out of place and irrelevant to the plot or the musical context. As for the rest, the mixture of folk, rock, and traditional Broadway styles emerge as blandly homogenous rather than innovative, leaving the listener constantly hoping for that big tune, thrilling anthem, or unexpected musical twist to show up.
Still, the various elements of the staging, including the sometimes extraordinarily complex choreography by Joey Pizzi and Robert Bianca, and fight coordination by Jeff Colangelo, meld together under Beane’s direction to form a relentless visual feast.
Incidentally, Friday’s opening night performance likewise presented an unexpected personal experience when one of the quarterstaffs cracked in the traditional fight scene between Little John and Robin, unintentionally sending a two-foot-long, sharp piece of wood sailing into the audience, directly toward my friend Mike West, who was sitting next to me, and who instinctively caught the sharp spear before it managed to injure himself or anyone else. I’ve come under more than a few attacks and even threats in my decades as a critic, but never faced an actual pointed sharp object hurled in my direction. That's theater for you. In this case, it had a harmless ending.
After all, Robin Hood currently has bigger and more frightening foes to face. We might need him now more than ever.
» Read our interview with Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn