After the Fair

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1999 (Varèse Sarabande) 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) It’s the very model of a modern chamber musical: a four-character, four-musician adaptation of a Thomas Hardy short story, here brought to life by Matthew Ward (music) and Stephen Cole (book and lyrics), and lovingly recorded by producer Bruce Kimmel. The slight plot — about a bored, unhappy, provincial couple (Michele Pawk and David Staller) and the wife’s Cyranoesque adventures in helping her maid (Jennifer Piech) conduct a romance with a London barrister (James Ludwig) — comes through clearly and affectingly. Cole’s lyrical craftmanship is striking (“With each passing missive, you grew more passive”) , and Ward’s music, aside from some dreary recitative, isn’t afraid of tunefulness or smart melodic development when the occasion demands. Diligent as the authors are, though, the score’s a bit studied; it sounds something like a Sondheim disciple’s thesis for a graduate degree in musical theater. And the unvarying parade of duets, quartets, and genteel accompaniment adds up to a rather limited musical palette. (Maybe the score worked better in the context of the show onstage.) The cast is variable: Pawk is excellent, Ludwig is sturdy, but you could drive a lorry through the hammy Staller’s vibrato, and Piech’s cartoon-Brit accent simply won’t do. Who was her dialect coach, Dick Van Dyke? — Marc Miller