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A CurtainUp Review
Hired Man

Oh to be a hired man. . .— refrain from "Song of the Hired Man."
The Hired Man
Simon Pontin and Claire Sundin in The Hired Man (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
It's not easy to make an epic historical novel like Melvyn Bragg's The Hired Man, a trilogy about the poor farm community of Northern England known as Cumbria. The musical based on Bragg's 1969 novel was produced in London in 1984 by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a cast of twenty-five and a pit orchestra. Despite winning an Ivor Novello Award and coming close to nabbing the Olivier, it had a much shorter life than its musical role model, Les Mieserables. Except for various other productions, including a brief 1988 Off-Broadway run with a half a dozen fewer actors and a 5-piece band, its been relegated to the category of litle known gems.

The latest production of Bragg's tribute to his grandfather comes from New Perspectives, a Nottingham-based Company that lives up to its name by producing shows that can travel to small theaters. Towards this end they have, by arrangement with Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, transformed the original musical into a super bare bones chamber piece for just eight actors with an onstage piano "orchestra" occasionally supported by two cast members playing trumpet and violin. This downsized production is now at 59E59's Theater A as part of the Brits Off Broadway 2008 Festival.

Like The Adding Machine, a pristine chamber musical based on Elmer Rice's play of the same name that's been enthusiastically embraced by New York Audiences and critics (our review), The Hired Man is a welcome departure from the glitzy movie-into-pop-musicals that have dominated the musical theater scene. It lacks The Adding Machine's excitingly inventive staging and never a dull moment pacing. yet it's a heartfelt enterprise. The lovely and diverse score has a song for the many events and moods of which there's no shortage. After all, the story spans more than twenty years in the life of John and Emily Tallentire and how their marriage is affected by circumstances that span twenty-two years.

The first act takes us from 1898 to 1900 and focuses on the scarcity of farm work in the region and a crisis in the marriage caused by Emily's attraction to Jackson, the local Lothario. The second act jumps forward to 1914 when the union movement is spreading through the other local work place, the hazardous mine where John has followed his brother in order to make more of a living wage. However, the defining event during this period is World War One and the staging of the men in the trenches is one of this production's high points, both dramatically and musically.

At its best, The Hired Man is a stirring Brechtian saga and the plot is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's classic novels about English country people enmeshed in their work lives and personal passions. There are also some treacly elements that are more reminiscent of a mass market romance which could stand some tightening (Even the excellent mix of choral anthems, drinking and war songs and ballads could lose a few lyrics in the interest of bringing the curtain down at least fifteen minutes sooner).

The hard-working cast takes on the parts usually handled by an ensemble. They sing Gooddall's score — the real star of this show — with passionate commitment. Richard Colvin as John, Simon Pontin as the dashing Jackson, and Katie Howell are especially outstanding in the acting as well as vocal department. Howell tops herself in her second act role as John and Emily's teen-aged daughter. The limitations of the scaled down orchestrations fade in the light of some of the standout numbers like John's heartbreaking "What Would You Say to Your Son?" when faced with young Harry's wish to join him in the dangerous mines. That song is touchingly reprised by Emily when Harry announces his determination to follow his father to the front.

Juliet Shillingford's low budget set efficiently evokes the region with a few leafless trees to symbolize the unyielding barrenness of the land and a painted back panel evokes its natural beauty. The raised platform that separates the Crossroads village and pub scenes from the Tallentire home and the space underneath that platform makes a remarkably effective trench for the powerful second act battle scene. It also works well for staging a mine disaster. Lighting designer Mark Dymock does good work, but the mist that envelops the stage throughout is more annoying than effective.

New Perspectives deserves high praise for meeting the challenge of this extreme bare bones approach to telling a story that covers so much ground. Their production of The Hired Man may not fulfill the original creators' ambition for another super hit like Les Miserables, but it captures the essence of this large slice of history and gives New York audiences a rare chance to experience an appealing and distinctly British music theater piece.

The Hired Man
(part of Brits Off Broadway 2008)
Music and Lyrics by Howard Goodall
Book by Melvyn Bragg
Directed by Daniel Buckroyd
Cast: Richard Colvin (John), Lee Foster (Joe/Harry), Katie Howell (Sally/May), Simon Pontin (Jackson), David Stothard (Seth), Claire Sundin (Emily), Stuart Ward (Isaac), Andrew Wheaton (Penningon). . .all other parts played by members of the company.
Musical Director/Pianist: Richard Reeday
Off Stage Keyboards: Jana Zielonka
Choreography: Katie Howell Designer: Juliet Shillingford
Lighting: Mark Dymock
New Perspectives Theatre Company at59E59 Theaters,Theater A, 59E59 Theaters 212-279-4200
Ticket: $50; $35 Members
From 6/05/08; opening 6/11/08; closing 6/29/08
Tues to Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm
Run Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer June 5 press preview
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Song Of The Hired Men
  • Fill It To The Top
  • Now For The First Time
  • Song Of The Hired Men (Reprise)
  • Work
  • Who Will You Marry Then?
  • Get up and Go Lad
  • I Wouldn't Be The First
  • Fade Away
  • Hear Your Voice
  • Who t A Fool I've Been
  • If I Could
  • Song Of The Hired Men (Reprise)
Act Two
  • You'll Never See The Sun
  • What Would You Say To Your Son?
  • Men Of Stone
  • Farewell Song
  • War
  • Day Follows Day
  • Crossbridge Dance
  • Choir of Angels
  • Hear Your Voice
  • Song Of The Hired Men (Reprise)
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