What happens when an epic story--Melvyn Bragg's The Hired Man, the first part of the Cumbrian Trilogy--gets compressed into a chamber musical? You get a show bursting at the seams with energy, but one that's stuck at the seams all the same. The musical is blessed with Howard Goodall's catchy folk songs (from the frothy melody of "Get Up And Go Lad" and the percussive shoveling of "Work") and individuals like Richard Colvin and Claire Sundin who are more than capable of switching into the operatic rage and sweet sorrow of songs like "What Would You Say To Your Son?" and "Fade Away." However, Bragg's adaptation condenses so much that the scenes become melodramatically weak, and the songs, barely tethered to the text, float through the audience more like a themed revue than a show. And though it's hard to say that matters when the counter-melodies of four different songs explode into a rousing finale, the show is too glibly forced: hell, the song "War" could very well be part of a musical reenactment of the same.
The show opens in 1898, with a glimpse of life before unions: workers like John (Colvin) cluster in hiring fairs, looking for work, but without the power to negotiate much of a living wage. ("Work's the only thing that's cheap these days," says one farmer.) Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Emily (Sundin), John contracts himself to Pennington (Andrew Wheaton), unaware that his wife has a history with Pennington's son, Jackson (Simon Pontin), the roguish antihero. It's not a particularly strong first act: the scenes are melodramatic, not memorable, and many of the songs, light and frilly, bleed into one another.
That's the cost of such compression: Bragg wants to give a wide cross-section of life, and so one of John's brothers, Isaac (Stuart Ward), introduces us to Westmorland-style wrestling, while the other, Seth (David Stothard), sows the seeds of unionizing dissent. We meet the girlish Sally (Katie Howell), only long enough for her to joke about marriage, and Jackson turns his adventurous eyes from his farming father's native land to the foreign adventures of the army, there's no weight to any of his words. And while Act II delivers substance to some of these topics, it does so by simply skipping from event to event, giving up on development altogether.
Ultimately, the show too often feels as reductive as the set's painted backdrop, and Daniel Buckroyd's direction is too stiffly staged as a tableaux. Of course, reducing something so epic still leaves The Hired Man standing tall above a great many of this season's off-Broadway musicals; I just hoped for something a little less businesslike, and a little more soulful.