One of the most stirring musicals to emerge from England during the last generation is Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall's The Hired Man, which is currently being revived off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. First produced on London's West End in 1984 by Andrew Lloyd Webber, at a time when that composer's own works featured singing cats and dancing trains, The Hired Man puts the spotlight squarely on human subjects-specifically some communities of farm hands, miners, and soldiers in Northern England at the dawn of the 20th century.
Bragg, an award-winning novelist, screenwriter (Isadora, Jesus Christ Superstar), and broadcaster, based the story of the musical on his own 1969 novel of the same name, a tale inspired by the life of his grandfather. The current revival has been touring the United Kingdom to some acclaim and arrives in New York with its cast intact. And, although the acting and direction are not, for the most part, as strong as one would like, the show still works, thanks to Bragg's powerful narrative and the even more effective songs by Goodall, a composer more famous here, oddly enough, for theme songs to such wacky British TV classics as Mr Bean, Blackadder, and The Vicar of Dibley.
Perhaps because the music for Hired Man springs out of English folk and choral traditions, it's not a showcase for coloratura sopranos or stadium-rock tenors. Instead, the tunes are simple and memorable, from rollicking drinking songs and gritty anti-war melodies to heart-wrenching ballads. This is an actor's show and the piece works best when the performers seem to have their feet planted firmly on the rough soil from which their characters sprang.
Unfortunately, only Richard Colvin has that kind of consistent, organic connection to the story in this production. Particularly in the second act, when his character, John, has become a father of two boisterous teenagers and the heartbroken partner in a troubled marriage, Colvin lends a gravity to his scenes that is genuinely moving. Lee Foster brings some passion to the role of John's son, Harry. But the other actors come up a bit short and the director, Daniel Buckroyd , does them no favors in certain pivotal scenes that seem too sketchily staged.
The production is pared down, with only eight performers dividing up the multiple roles and only three musicians playing the score-the music director, Richard Reeday, at a piano, stage left, and two of the actors pitching in now and then with John Doyle-esque turns on a violin and trumpet. However, while I missed the epic sweep of the original 1984 production-with its fuller company and multiple projection screens transporting us from the Cumbrian hills to the battle trenches of France-the minimalist approach largely does the job here. This is, after all, a kind of story theater, and Buckroyd's scaled down approach does lend itself to that overtly theatrical narrative style.
And those melodies bring it all home. One of the best is an 11 o'clock number titled No Choir of Angels, in which two of the leads proclaim a love that has survived years of heartache and struggle. Frankly, the show could have ended there instead of continuing on through a couple of extra melodramatic turns. But, all in all, this is a musical to be savored.