Richard Cory is the kind of musical most sensible producers would never give a second glance: dark, musically unhinged, and based on a poem so universally known for its last line that the author could generate no real suspense. Spamalot, now there's a sure thing. This? Bad idea.
That's why the New York Musical Theatre Festival is so vital: It's a rare opportunity to discard traditional ideas of "sensible" and "commercially viable" and explore titles that, even if they're "bad" ideas, might actually be good shows that deserve to be seen by musical-loving New Yorkers. Richard Cory, adapted by Ed Dixon from A.R. Gurney's play and showing at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre, happily and comfortably fits into that category.
But knowing Edwin Arlington Robinson's original poem, or even just its famous closing statement ("And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head"), is not the same as knowing the musical: As if to prove this, the show's first song (part of a scene titled "The Wake") is little more than the poem set to music. As soon as you know where Richard is going, Dixon begins the business of showing you how he gets there.
Granted, there's not much original about the specifics of his ensuing character development: Richard (Herndon Lackey) is a lawyer and budding philanthropist trapped in an unfulfilling if not unhappy marriage to Emily (Lynne Wintersteller), who has been taking up in his spare time with a young woman (Christeena Riggs) from his office and is trying against the odds to lead a fulfilling life. If Richard Cory has a flaw, this is it; it's hard not wish that Dixon had fleshed out Richard into someone less familiar.
The execution, though, is brilliantly conceived: Dixon places Richard within a thoroughly musical world, but allows him no connection to it. Everyone around him - his devoted secretary (Catherine Cox), a big-mouthed waitress (Cady Huffman), even a secret admirer (Maureen Moore) who hopes she can turn unrequited love into something tangible - sings, and in a different style: Old-fashioned musical comedy, contemporary post-Sondheim stylings, and even light operetta are present in varying degrees. But Richard is relegated almost entirely to nonmusical speech.
This gives the show a unique musical texture, solidly operatic, yet never stiff or off-putting; Richard Cory sounds like few other musicals. Accompaniment (Lawrence Yurman is the fine pianist) graces the supporting characters' sung lines, but abruptly cuts off when it's time for Richard to speak; in short order, it becomes easy to relate to Richard's alienation from humanity. If this tends to give the show a colder, more distant feel than is perhaps ideal, it always works and generates continuously compelling musical drama.
The flawless cast is of great help, starting with Lackey's glittering, "quietly arrayed" central figure; he commands attention, and deftly communicates Richard's varying moods. The other performers in this star-packed cast all shine with equal brightness, though Moore's embodiment of repressed yearning and subsequent fiery sense of betrayal gives her the play's biggest, showiest role, and she handles it perfectly. Wintersteller is heartbreaking as the scorned (and soon-to-scorn) wife, Riggs bursts with sunny sensuality, Cox's comedic shadings are superbly subtle, and Huffman makes her tiny cameo role into a winning star spot.
Though there's no choreography to speak of, director James Brennan keeps the show dancing, alternately reverently and energetically, through 15 scenes that explore every flawed facet of the conflicted central figure. But despite the subject matter, and the nearly unremitting blue of Michael Bottari and Ronald Case's costumes and Kevin Hardy's lights, the show is never a downer; the only depressing musicals are bad musicals, which makes Richard Cory as uplifting as it could possibly be.
New York Musical Theatre Festival