This Broadway-bound Mirvish show is just begging to be a musical.
When is a musical not a musical? When it’s The Heart of Robin Hood. This lively, Broadway-bound romantic/adventure comedy, now at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, is just begging to be a full-fledged piece of musical theatre. Already, it depends heavily on the incidental tunes provided by rambunctious Connecticut roots band Parsonsfield, who sing and play between the scenes. But what the show cries out for are integrated musical numbers sung by the principal characters. Watching the performance, you can even point out where they should go.
That’s not to say that The Heart of Robin Hood isn’t entertaining in its current incarnation. It has already been a success in its original form, as a family holiday show from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, and again when staged by Boston’s American Repertory Theater in 2013 (which is when Parsonsfield came on board). But watching the latest iteration, a co-pro by David Mirvish and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, you feel that, fun as it is, there’s something missing. And to really make a splash on Broadway—where it opens March 29 at the Marquis Theatre—it will need more than just generic foot-stomping numbers in the vein of Mumford & Sons.
The show was written by the U.K.’s David Farr and directed by Iceland’s Gísli Örn Gardarsson, the duo who created that stunning production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis seen at the Royal Alex last season. Farr, inspired by Shakespeare’s rom-coms, has done a witty feminist rewrite of the Robin Hood legend, so that demure Maid Marion is now a broadsword-wielding, cross-dressing heroine with as much pluck as—and more brains than—Robin. Gardarsson, meanwhile, has applied his signature athletic staging, filling the show with acrobatic feats in a style that’s part nouveau cirque, part old Hollywood swashbucklers. The playful Börkur Jónsson, who designed the perspective-skewing set for Metamorphosis, has conceived a Sherwood Forest dominated by a gigantic grassy slope, down which the characters frequently slide. (Let’s hope the actors’ posteriors have been insured.)
Marion (Izzie Steele), a rebellious young aristocrat with a sense of social justice, has imagined Robin Hood (Gabriel Ebert) to be the exemplary outlaw we all know, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. When she discovers he’s just a two-bit robber who keeps his ill-gotten gains, she decides to do the wealth-distribution herself. She gets her opportunity when the villainous Prince John (Euan Morton), visiting her father’s castle, puts the moves on her. Fleeing into the forest with her servant/comic sidekick, Pierre (a burly but effeminate Christian Lloyd), Marion ditches her dress for male garb and sets herself up as Martin, Robin’s rival.
Robin, who is smitten with Marion, in true Shakespearean tradition doesn’t recognize her as a lad. However, when his indignation is finally stirred by the plight of a peasant family, he and his men join forces with Martin and Pierre (now known as Big Peter) to defeat the greedy prince.
As that naughty “Big Peter” alias suggests, the show is sometimes just this side of a Christmas panto. Indeed, Lloyd’s lovable, audience-pandering Pierre would be right at home in a Ross Petty production. But at other times, the tone veers closer to Game of Thrones. We’re treated to a hanging, talk of torture, threats of decapitation, and a bloodless but still graphic scene of someone having their tongue yanked out. Then there’s the little peasant girl who becomes mute after witnessing an atrocity—a part played in alternating performances by Anna Bartlam or Amariah Faulkner. Bartlam, who took the role opening night, has a forlorn-waif expression that’s truly haunting.
But these are fleeting shadows in what is mostly a lighthearted romp. Steele, who resembles Mila Kunis, is a brassy, appealing Marion, while Ebert’s tall, curly-haired Robin is a charming macho lunkhead. (“He’s brutish and emotionally unavailable,” warns Pierre, trying to dissuade Marion from pursuing him.) Morton’s Prince John, sadistic streak aside, recalls Roger Rees’s Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks’s irresistibly silly Robin Hood: Men in Tights. And Sarah Schenkkan, shamelessly trawling for laughs as Marion’s shallow kid sister, behaves like a Disney princess on crack.
Everyone gets in on the physical stuff, although the serious acrobatics are left to Robin’s men and John’s minions—notably the short-statured Jeremy Crawford’s non-ironic Little John and Katelyn McCulloch’s punk henchwoman. Jónsson’s scenery is like a sylvan playground, boasting not just that big slide, but ropes, platforms, tree boughs, trap doors, and even a muddy duck pond.
Emma Ryott’s costumes are a crazy anachronistic mashup that includes 19th-century frock coats, 18th-century powdered wigs, and medieval jerkins. Martin and Big Peter also briefly wear the classic green Robin Hood ensemble, complete with feathered caps. Tailored by Pierre, their getup is quickly laughed out of Sherwood Forest. Added to the mix are the five beard-loving minstrels of Parsonsfield, who look like they’re en route to either a frontier hootenanny or a Queen Street hipster bar.
That brings us back to the musical question. Farr’s script is clever but slight, and you can’t help but think that we’d get more involved with the characters if they were given their own humorous numbers in which to define themselves or bare their souls. Certainly, it would strengthen the romance at the centre of the story, which is all but lost amid the constant stage activity. That may be the biggest reason why, in the end, you leave the theatre amused but unsatisfied.
Perhaps Farr is aware he’s written a nascent musical comedy: he’s given The Heart of Robin Hood a running joke in which the title character repeatedly refuses to sing. It may be too late for Broadway, but if the playwright and his collaborators are considering yet another version of this show, they should avoid being like Robin—and give in to their musical impulse.