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The Heart of Robin Hood: Broadway-bound show is rollicking fun, but who's it for?

A scene from The Heart of Robin Hood

3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Heart of Robin Hood
Written by
David Farr
Actors
Gabriel Ebert and Izzie Steele
Music
Parsonsfield
Venue
Royal Alexandra Theatre
City
Toronto
Year
2015
Runs Until
Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Heart of Robin Hood is the only muscle that doesn't get a thorough workout in the new, athletic adaptation of the famous English legend currently on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Icelandic director Gisli Orn Gardarsson's and designer Borkur Jonsson's rollicking production sees Marion (Izzie Steele), Robin Hood (Gabriel Ebert) and a well-built band of men swing from ropes, flip off gangplanks and play parkour on a 12-metre-tall slide that stands in for Sherwood Forest.

British playwright David Farr has made a few alterations to the Robin Hood tale, although the story has changed so much from era to era, it's difficult to say what the traditional version is really.

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Marion is, as in most contemporary adaptations, a feisty fighter herself. She escapes from her absent crusading father's court into the forest to evade the clutches of the lecherous Prince John (a one-note Euan Morton), intending to join the mysterious man who reputedly steals from the rich and gives to the poor.

What she and her trusty clown-servant Pierre (a charming Christian Lloyd, playing all his lines to the cheap seats) find instead is a hard-hearted Robin (Gabriel Ebert) who simply steals – and who won't allow ladies into his not-so-merry band because of some balderdash about them making men "rash and unreliable."

Undeterred, Marion disguises herself as "Martin" to form her own gang of philanthropic filchers. This brings her into direct competition with Robin – and the plot hinges on whether the two will fight each other to the death, or join forces to stop Prince John from murdering the cute children of a tax-evading subject.

The Heart of Robin Hood, a co-production of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and David Mirvish, is not a musical – "I'm not singing!" Robin insists at regular, irreverent intervals. There is, however, a bearded band on stage called Parsonsfield, whose musicians look like they should be running an artisanal pickle shop. They play a series of songs reminiscent of Great Big Sea and Mumford and Sons, tuneful and only tangentially related to the action.

But The Heart of Robin Hood's unique selling point is Gardarsson's staging – full of simple, funny theatrical images like trombone-playing horses, and more extravagantly visceral ones that involve actors disappearing down bottomless pits or into deep pools of water.

Leads Ebert and Steele rise to the physical and dramatic demands of the show wonderfully, the former somehow making this Robin into more than the sulky overgrown boy he is written as, the latter bringing a winning sense of humour to her heroine. Their romance is rudimentary, however, and I didn't buy Robin's reversal from his unexplained misogyny – it requires a long jump in logic.

The main question I had upon leaving, however, was: Who exactly is The Heart of Robin Hood aimed at? Cirque du Soleil gives thrill-seekers more heart-stopping moments per buck, while Ross Petty's fractured fairy tales are more gleefully irreverent with their source material.

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David Farr's script is perhaps more polished than your average panto, but it's not any deeper. The feminism of Farr's rewrite is but skin-deep: Marion has swung from one female stereotype – the damsel in distress – to another – the good woman who sees the heart in a brute and civilizes him.

There are a few attempts at contemporary resonance – a complaint about living in "an age of shallowness" and a nod to Prince John's taxes going to fight "the crusades against the Muslim terror." But unlike notable modern Robin Hoods in movies such as Kevin Costner's Prince of Thieves or the recent BBC television series, there is no Muslim member among Robin's merry men. Indeed, The Heart of Robin Hood's cast – half American and half Canadian – is all white, with British accents. The production's imaginativeness has its limits – and, in some ways, this is a retrograde adaptation.

The Heart of Robin Hood, which I saw in its final preview, has little to truly interest adults in terms of characters or plot – especially as a series of stagey fighting sequences take over in the second act. As for kids, the show can be surprisingly gruesome – characters are summarily dispatched, a tongue is yanked from a mouth and Prince John goes into a particularly sadistic monologue about exactly how he is going to torture Robin Hood. Not quite a musical, not quite a spectacle, not quite a spoof – it will certainly be interesting to see if this light-hearted lark finds a large enough cohort to thrive on Broadway, when it transfers there in March.

The Heart of Robin Hood continues to March 1. For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.

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