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Theater review: HCT’s 'Heart of Robin Hood' is a muddled mix of old and new

"HEART OF ROBIN HOOD," through Oct. 14, Hale Centre Theatre, 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive, West Valley City (801-984-9000 or hct.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)

WEST VALLEY CITY — A boisterous reboot of the classic tale we thought we knew, David Farr’s “The Heart of Robin Hood” received its regional premiere at Hale Centre Theatre last weekend and runs through Oct. 14.

First performed six years ago at the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, HCT’s play-turned-musical delivered goofball antics, romance, suspense and swordplay in a manner that felt discombobulated and indecisive.

Farr’s is a fresh take on the hero of Nottingham. Robin Hood (Derek Smith) and his band of outlaws steal mercilessly from the rich without sharing their spoils with the poor. Instead, they simply fleece wealthy travelers, making Sherwood Forest a fearsome destination.

Enter our hero and protagonist, Maid Marion (Riley Branning). Sword-wielding and sharp-tongued, Branning plays the duke’s valiant daughter, who attempts to flee from the clutches of her dreaded betrothed, Prince John, to join the bandits and reform Robin Hood — whom she also happens to have feelings for. She disguises herself as a man named Martin and eventually helps a self-centered bully find his heart and lead the people of Nottingham.

Swashbuckling, spoofing and silly, the production has a contemporary edge, with some characters dressed in period costume, while others don go-go boots, blue wigs, disco gowns, smoking jackets or punk-inspired pompadours and heavy eyeliner.

Like the wild mix of modern-day vignettes in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,” "Heart of Robin Hood" attempts to add lighthearted, contemporary layers to an old-time story: A guy strides in wielding an electric guitar, Marion’s buffoonish sidekick Pierre (Daniel Fenton Anderson) wears floral Doc Martins and a purple clown’s wig, and Prince Johns Minions’ look like they belong on the “Sons of Anarchy” set.

Yet unlike “Joseph,” there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why some characters are modern and edgy while others aren’t. The same could be said for the music that is a mishmash of musical genres from British invasion rock to Gregorian chant.

Apparently, the original production — not a musical — boasted fantastic forest sets and jaw-dropping aerialist, parkour and acrobatic feats. It got sound reviews despite its predictable plot as a physically and visually stunning spectacle.

Likely because of a restricted stage size, director Dave Tinney and musical director Rob Moffat have traded in lavish sets and athleticism for tunes. And why shouldn’t they? HCT audiences love musicals, and the company has a special knack for showcasing exceptional voices while downsizing movement. Usually, it absolutely works, with audiences scratching their heads in awe at being transported despite the small stage. In fact, it’s the intimacy that works in HCT’s favor.

In this case, however, turning the play into a rock 'n' roll musical awash with medieval melodies and ancient English song structures was a miss. Sometimes, the fast-paced music proved too hard to keep up with as was the case during the first scene when Smith chased down the track “If I Want It,” but couldn’t quite catch up.

Fortunately, things got better. Smith redeemed himself during the song “Go On,” and Branning as Marion showcased her fabulous voice during “Take Me to Your Heart,” which seemed reminiscent of a '90s soft rock ballad.

On a brighter note, the sword fights, which were many, proved both entertaining and well-choreographed, with a high point occurring when Robin and Marion (disguised as Martin) duke it out while keeping time with the musical number, “A Real Man.”

Benjamin J. Henderson gave a standout performance as the evil Prince John, revealing his impressive stage skills and comedic timing. Acting the part of a sneering, sadistic twit dressed like a bulked-up Boy George, he somehow managed to be cruel and hilarious all at once.

His song, “Self Devoted Love,” is truly funny and clever to boot, but Prince John and even the Merry Men are surprisingly gruesome at times.

While HCT’s “The Heart of Robin Hood” had some true talent to give it wings, its multiple personalities sometimes made it difficult to stay in flight.

Content advisory: "The Heart of Robin Hood" contains sword fighting and mildly gruesome offstage enactments of execution, beheading and tongue removal and detailed conversations discussing torture that might be frightening to younger audiences.