Love, betrayal, death, insanity. . . . Perfect subjects for a musical, right? Perhaps, but not necessarily as they've been brought together in the new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel, Far from the Madding Crowd that's playing as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Make no mistake: The show, with book and lyrics by Barbara Campbell and music by Gary Schocker, is pleasant enough to sustain an evening. But should "pleasant" be the most applicable word to describe a story about overworked English farmers and a tortuous tangled web of love, sex, and deceit? Most of these details and complexities have been fashioned into what is essentially a romantic musical drama - or, if you prefer, a comedy with few laughs - to somewhat disorienting effect.
The attempts of director Jamibeth Margolis and her designers (sets and lights by Ryan Mueller, costumes by David Withrow) to foist more darkness onto this show seldom succeed at clarifying the characters or situations. This material can't support the type of Les Miserables or Jane Eyre treatment Margolis is apparently aiming for; Far from the Madding Crowd feels as if it's a warmed over imitation of one of those shows that never succeeded at finding its own style.
The 2000 musical version of Jane Eyre seems an especially appropriate comparison, as the central character here is also a determined, modern woman. Bathsheba Everdene (Kate Fisher) takes over running her uncle's farm after his death, and the show follows her attempts to make her way in a man's world while chronicling her various entanglements with a simple shepherd named Gabriel (D.B. Bonds), her rich and lonely neighbor William Boldwood (William Broderick), and a handsome officer named Frank (Richard Todd Adams).
But as the book tracks Bathsheba's complicated love life - among other things, she forsakes Gabriel, convinces Boldwood through a prank that she loves him, and marries Frank out of sheer lust - it loses the sense of period flavor and morality that provide the true grist for the story. If this story is as much about the growing importance of women in capacities once held almost exclusively by men, it's seldom reflected in the show beyond a song ("A Woman in Charge") and a few throwaway lines.
Jettisoning this greater thematic framework only feels problematic because Bathsheba's various romances are never compellingly dramatized. The relationships are all fairly watered down, referred to more than dealt with directly. Gabriel is a cipher who sings of being only "An Everyday Man" as his establishing song; Boldwood seems unstable from his first appearance in the show, making his eventual obsession with Bathsheba unsurprising; and Frank's interest in Bathsheba is never convincing enough to make his eventual turnaround a true dramatic low point for her or a high point for us.
The score - which is performed under the musical direction of Tom Gallaher - does effectively incorporate period English melodies and a few haunting strains of a flute (warmly played by Schocker himself), but few of the tunes are strongly, interestingly integrated, and even fewer are memorable. Bathsheba has a lovely ballad in "After All," and Rena Strober - as a plot-important plaything Frank discards on a flimsy pretense early in the show - finds legitimate meaning in her near-death wail, "Fanny." Few of the other numbers make much of an impression.
Just about all the performers do, especially Adams, Bonds, and Broderick as Bathsheba's suitors. Just about everyone else in the show gets a chance to shine - there are plenty of chorus opportunities in this show, which may eventually make it ideal for school or community theatre groups. But one can't escape the fact that, though this cast is full of some exceptional talent, no one can do much to elevate to theatrical necessity the attractive yet unspectacular music they've been given to sing over the bromidic if never objectionable scenes they must act.
That includes Fisher in the enormous lead role of Bathsheba. She sings beautifully, and acts convincingly in the character's early icy scenes, though it's often difficult to accept the woman she portrays as being the object of so many men's desires. This - and the heartbreaks she experiences - aside, by the time the show ends, Bathsheba hasn't visibly warmed up too much. Neither, unfortunately, has the rest of Far from the Madding Crowd.
New York Musical Theatre Festival