The Bobbed-Haired Bandit
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 13, 2011
The Bobbed-Haired Bandit was one of 1924’s biggest news stories—a beautiful young woman with a scandalous modern haircut and an even more scandalous pistol, robbing grocery stores and drugstores all over Brooklyn, eluding the police for months and ultimately captured on the lam in Florida after a failed attempt at a much bigger target, the payroll office of the Nabisco company. Yet Celia Cooney, who committed the robberies with her husband, Ed, turned out to be not the glamorous gun moll imagined by the tabloid press, but a pregnant Brooklyn laundress, married to an auto mechanic and terrified of having to raise their first child in poverty.
It’s an amazing true story that seems tailor-made for stage or screen—including a crime spree, a romance, a case of mistaken identity (the police at one point arrested a former chorus girl whose only crimes were having a bobbed haircut and some unsavory friends), initially bumbling cops who eventually get their woman, and a pair of complicated anti-heroes, not to mention the 1920s New York setting. So it’s a little disappointing that the musical The Bobbed-Haired Bandit is largely pedestrian.
Anna Marquardt (book and lyrics) and Britt Bonney (music) have done a faithful job of translating the story with an impressive amount of detail, capturing the most important elements in the Cooneys’ lives and sketching in the broader context surrounding their story. But although the show is engaging and enthusiastically performed, it often feels generic, drawing on standard musical-theater tropes instead of really investigating and depicting the richer elements of its story, its characters, or even its period.
The music is catchy—I’m still humming a few of the tunes—but simplistic, as are the lyrics and the book. The piece acknowledges some of the larger issues raised by the story in individual songs—the rise of the tabloid press, the new role of women in changing American society, the birth of consumer culture in the years running up to the Great Depression, the role of pulp novels in popular culture—but doesn’t really engage with any of them in a well-thought-out way. And there’s a real darkness to the story—from the grinding poverty that led the Cooneys to their life of crime through the violence in some of their crimes and ending with the even more desperate straits they find themselves in before capture—that’s minimized here.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of small pleasures to enjoy. Director-choreographer Deborah Wolfson, makes a smart stylistic choice in staging the robberies like flickering silent films (though one of the most pivotal crimes takes place offstage). Katelin Lee’s costumes evoke the period in a simple, elegant way. I didn’t really understand the logic behind having an ensemble where women played all the male roles—police detectives, storekeepers, reporters, etc.—except Eddie Cooney, but the choice offers some wonderful comic opportunities to performers. I especially liked Jen Eden as the Cooneys’ greedy Russian landlady, a potentially throwaway part that gets some big laughs, and Stephanie Holser, who has a bravura musical number as Nathan Mazo, injured in the Nabisco robbery and being questioned by police.
There’s a lot of potential in the material—but I’d like to see the piece dig a little deeper and make more thoughtful choices about how to tell its story and develop its characters.