Near the end of playwright Douglas Carter Beane and composer/lyricist Lewis Flinn’s musical “Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure,” now in a world premiere at Dallas Theater Center, heroes Robin Hood and bride Marian decide they could simply be “ordinary people living two ordinary lives.” But why? “Let’s be legendary,” they conclude.
That they have.
For about 900 years the medieval story of the man born into privilege turned outlaw, who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, has been popular in nearly all forms of literature and entertainment. At the start of this version, the ensemble reminds us of this fact in a cacophony of shout-outs to various versions. As the story goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent why Robin’s fabled heroics are as relevant as ever.
Beane also directs, and doesn’t shy away from cunning parallels to 2017. (Life partners Beane and Flinn have been working on the show for years, and it was announced on the DTC season early in 2016.)
Their framework of a troupe of actors gathering to tell the story with theatrical flair is not a new device — a notable precursor would be “Pippin” — and it works devilishly well here.
Robert, who becomes Robin (Nick Bailey), flees from Nottingham and hides in the forest, where his team of Merry Men forms: pipsqueak Much (Billie Aken-Tyers), Little John (Luke Longacre), Friar Tuck (Chris Ramirez), Will Scarlett (Jacob ben Widmar, channeling Jack McFarland and Stefon Meyers), Gamble Gold (Ricco Fajardo) and the balladeer who sings it into action, Alan A’dale (gritty-voiced Ian Ferguson). Alan’s guitar is emblazoned with “this machine kills fascists,” which was what great American social change troubadour Woody Guthrie sported on his.
They’re taken in by Meg (big-voiced Alysha Umphress), who has a past with Robin and Marian (Ashley Park), who escapes the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham (a menacing and dashing Austin Scott) and joins Robin and his band. Notice the title “maid” isn’t included with Marian’s name; in this version, she doesn’t need rescuing and is as much of a hero as Robin. Also on her side are ladies Jane (Tiana Kaye Johnson) and Anne (Beth Lipton).
Design elements are wonderfully harmonious: John Lee Beatty’s scenic design of a barnlike structure (“Let’s put on a show!”) with brilliant scene-establishing embellishments (green bird cages signify the forest); Gregory Gale’s era-jumping costumes; and Robert Bianca and Joey Pizzi’s choreography and Jeff Colangelo’s intricate fight coordination, which includes one nail-biting fight scene on a bridge made of a plank of wood and two metal ladders. That kind of deconstruction of art and artifice keeps the show’s concept moving forward.
Best are imaginative puppets designed by Richardson native James Ortiz and Stefano Brancato. King John is, appropriately, a grotesque rod puppet (voiced by Longacre). Other highlights include a bunraku vulture, and handheld and shadow puppets for a perspective-shifting chase scene. Even arrows and branches are object manipulation.
Flinn’s score (music direction by Brad Simmons; keyboardist Kwinton Gray conducts four other musicians in an onstage corral, while some actors play instruments ranging from violin and guitar to tambourine and bodhran) evokes folk, Celtic, and rock, with a higher percentage of memorable songs than we’ve heard from DTC’s new musicals in the past decade (this is the ninth; Beane/Flinn’s “Give It Up!/Lysistrata Jones” was first). Scott hits the bull’s-eye with the aching “Sheriff’s Lament,” joined downstage by cellist Kelsey Smith.
Bailey’s and Park’s chemistry is as comfy as two arrows in a quiver; they both relish these famous roles, with Bailey unafraid to embrace a goofy side, or to play second fiddle. It’s a solid ensemble all around, bolstered by marvelous visuals and a concept that sticks with it through the end.
With a story this famous, it’s important to keep it fresh. “Hood” does that, and reminds us that a system-fighting outlaw/hero is always important — and that hero can be you as long as you speak out. Better yet, take action.