A good musical grabs us at first listen. That's almost a definition, or a job description, of this essentially populist form. Ed Dixon's "Richard Cory," in its premiere at the New York Musical Theater Festival, comes off instead as the sort of subtly shaded chamber piece that might attract a specialized audience with repeated hearings, like a Bruckner symphony or a Britten opera.
Not that it's inaccessible, exactly. It is admirably clear, even transparent, both in its storytelling architecture and in its inarguably fine execution by an exceptional cast of nine under the director James Brennan. But in its airtight, not to say airless, construction, Mr. Dixon's through-composed score seems to have absorbed the distant, dead-end perfectionism of its title character all too well.
Based on the 1976 A. R. Gurney play, itself an imaginative extrapolation of Edwin Arlington Robinson's short poem from 1897, "Richard Cory" traces the midlife disintegration of an impeccable gentleman lawyer (Herndon Lackey) who feels stifled by high expectations, and whose half-hearted stabs at change only baffle his family and associates. He's a signature Gurney character, in other words. At its best, Mr. Dixon's piece tenderly captures the nameless dissatisfaction of a man who has everything but an acceptable outlet, or an understanding ear, for his soul-shaking doubts.
Mr. Dixon underlines Cory's isolation by having him speak his lines while others sing - a device suggested by Mr. Gurney, which is appropriately jarring but which never stops feeling like a device, particularly when characters exchange sung recitative with Cory's matter-of-fact dialogue.
In a musical-theater world besotted with the cheap irony of countless would-be "Urinetowns," Mr. Dixon's earnest effort, with its stately chorales and well-drawn trios, stands out. But merely standing out, as Richard Cory learns, is a job for statues.