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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
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.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
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