Reviewed by Eric Miles Glover
Due to the genius of the New Perspectives Theatre Company, Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall's The Hired Man receives a chamber-music production during the Fifth Annual Brits Off Broadway Festival. The musical, which was originally produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber during its original West End premiere in 1984, chronicles the day-to-day experiences of the working class in Cumbria, a rural community, at the turn of the twentieth century in England. The Hired Man relates the effects of industrialization on farmers, who must abandon farming in order to keep pace with the times. The musical also chronicles the horrors of World War I from a rural perspective.
The score, by far, is the strongest element. The Hired Man begins with the spirited "Song of the Hired Men," which introduces several colorful characters who will captivate and entertain the theatergoer. The momentum of that establishing number leads to the lovely duet "Now For the First Time," which throws a young couple into the mix, their day-to-day experiences the focus of The Hired Man. Though the couple vows to make the best of life as farmer and wife, the trials and tribulations in England between 1898 and 1920 put love to the ultimate test. The score is full of numbers--including "Work" and "Men of Stone"--that capture the highs and lows of a rural community on the teetering edge of disintegration.
However, the book is weak. A lot of information is revealed about characters that is neither developed nor substantiated in the scenes that precede the musical numbers. The characters, at times, appear to be highly sensitive people, but that show of emotion--so fundamental to the storytelling--seldom comes from anything other than the music. The lack of a strong script makes the score feel more like a song cycle or revue than a full-on musical.
The ensemble compensates for the weak book with its acting and singing. The director, Daniel Buckroyd, has made wonderful use Juliet Shillingford's scenic design. For example, a series of platforms becomes a mountaintop, mine, dining-room table, and trench, among other inanimate objects. With assistance from the musical director, Richard Reeday, Buckroyd makes an ensemble of eight seem larger. As John, Richard Colvin makes a strong impression. His acting is powerful and robust, deftly navigating the highs and lows that his character experiences. His singing is phenomenal. As Emily, Claire Sundin delivers a master class of sorts in musical theater performance. Though she does not have the strongest singing voice in the ensemble, she uses her limitations to embody the rawness of the character that she plays. The other six actors--Lee Foster, Katie Howell, Simon Pontin, David Stothard, Stuart Ward, Andrew Wheaton--exceed expectation.
A treat, this production is on its way to becoming the gem of Brits Off Broadway.
Through June 29 at Theater A, 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, (212) 279-4200, www.britsoffbroadway.com.