BWW Review: Douglas Carter Beane's New Musical HOOD at Dallas Theater Center
Not every new musical can be a HAMILTON, but that's exactly what makes the eclectic genre of American musical theatre thrive and bloom. However, there are a few necessary, key ingredients in creating musical theatre magic, including relatable principal characters and some heartfelt showtunes. And, although Dallas Theater Center's efforts to produce an edgy new musical based on the Robin Hood folklore don't ever get past the surface of the legendary story, there's still something irresistible about being in the room where a new work is being created.
In HOOD: THE ROBIN HOOD MUSICAL ADVENTURE, audiences get a glimpse into how a young man named Robert became the famous radical hero with a motley crew of camouflaged men. But there are a lot of other people who help to tell the tale. Throughout the show, a local minstrel acts as narrator, and helps further the plot with songs played on his guitar. Robin's childhood pal, Meg (the only major character introduced to the traditional text), orchestrates Robin's saving of his damsel in distress and righting his city's wrongs. And, lastly but not least, a handful of hipster-inspired storytellers create the endless cast of ensemble characters (with the help of several comical puppets designed by James Ortiz).
Husbands Douglas Carter Beane (book) and Lewis Flinn (music and lyrics) are the creators of the new musical, for which Beane also serves as director. Beane's recent Broadway accomplishments include the celebrated XANADU, SISTER ACT, THE NANCE and the recent revival of CINDERELLA, where his witty one-liners and rich character development reshaped the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Finn previously collaborated with Beane on the short-lived LYSISTRATA JONES (which premiered at DTC as GIVE IT UP!) and has written a handful of lesser-known works like OTHER GIRLS, LIKE LOVE and THE WINNER. As a writing team, the duo has yet to produce a major commercial success, but their current partnership with Dallas Theatre Center is a healthy step to get them on that path.
With a pocketful of power ballads for the show's leading ladies, Alysha Umphress (Broadway's ON THE TOWN, AMERICAN IDIOT, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT and BRING IT ON) and Ashley Park (SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, THE KING AND I and MAMMA MIA), plus Beane's slick direction and occasional zingers, the musical displays definite potential, but never quite finds its footing. Unlike the abovementioned enhancements to Beane's CINDERELLA, HOOD struggles from a lack of well-defined relationships and a bit of exposition overkill in act one, where the bulk of the story is unnecessarily focused on introducing each of the Merry Men as they join the infamous rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor mission. The role of Meg (which Ms. Umphress fills with charm, while delivering her songs through the roof) is acknowledged as a familiar face to Robin and his men, yet is often left on the sidelines without having any emotional engagement in the scenes. Without a romantic subplot or purpose beyond "sexy sidekick with occasional advice," finding sympathy for her fate late in the show is challenging. Alternatively, Ms. Park's material is further developed. Here, Marian is self-sufficient and able to hit a target with more skill than the men who call the shots-which she executes without apology or any put-on tomboy transformation. But despite Park's gorgeous voice and nuanced performance, her songs (as with much of the score) tend to be forgettable. Without a published song list, the only titles I can immediately recall from last evening's performance are "Be Robin Hood" and "Merry Be" (both coincidently sung by Meg).
Another challenge is the dissonance between the show and DTC's marketing package for HOOD. The ads and even the Playbill cover suggest a modern, sexy spin on the story...a distant cry from what is currently onstage at the Wyly Theatre. While this is not a dig at actor Nick Bailey who dons the famous green hat, his subdued, grungy approach clashes with the face of the show as promoted. Bailey is more than serviceable as Hood, with his growling Adam Pascal-style vocals. His performance does occasionally suffer from an absence of charisma, which may simply be a consequence of the in-progress development of the new work.
Special mention must be made of Jacob ben Widmar (Broadway's THE BOOK OF MORMON, WHITE CHRISTMAS, XANADU, NO NO NANETTE), playing Will Scarlett and a handful of over-the-top characters, who manages to hold the audience in the palm of his hand any moment he steps out from the wings. Whether he's clutching a set of pearls or sashaying with his flowing cape, Widmar brings an infectious glee to the stage. With his expert knack for comedy, it's a shame the tale cannot be told from his spirited point of view.
With such imposing Broadway talent filling the cast, kudos are also owed to the local actors who shine as brightly as the stars they appear alongside. One such actress is Beth Lipton, who not only proves to be a standout among the group in her supporting role, but also demonstrates staggering musical skills on violin, recorder and several other small instruments - often while singing or dancing.
It could be argued that Douglas Carter Beane, as both writer and director, is perhaps too close to the material to clearly pick the flowers through the show's weeds, but his unique vision certainly shines through his clever direction. His work is supported by all of the technical aspects, as well: Gregory Gale's beautiful costumes, which are intricately decorated with bottle caps and shards of mirror; John Lee Beatty's fitting scenery; Phillip Rosenberg's lights; and simple, but effective choreography by both Robert Bianca and Joey Pizzi.
Of the musicals that have recently debuted on Dallas Theater Center's stage, HOOD: THE ROBIN HOOD MUSICAL ADVENTURE floats high above BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE's fumbling plot challenges, but never quite reaches the level of pure joy in the entertaining MOONSHINE: THAT HEE HAW MUSICAL. It's hard to say exactly what HOOD may look like with some further script work (and if that work will take place before the show departs Dallas), but the opportunity to see some of the country's top talent come together for a brand new, no-expense-spared production is a gift that most theatre communities could only dream of.
HOOD performances continue through August 6th with show times Tuesday through Saturday at varying times. Tickets and more information can be found at www.DallasTheaterCenter.org.