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Theater Review Joycean musical hits high note with move to Broadway

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD. Directed by Richard Nelson. Featuring Christopher Walken and Blair Brown. At Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., NYC. Through May 6.

It’s only a matter of two blocks North and three blocks East from Playwrights Horizons on West 42nd Street to the elegant, old Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street, but it can be a risky journey for a show trying to make the move from off-Broadway tryout success at a membership showcase to full-fledged hit status, completely capable of competing with the most noisily hyped commercial blockbuster.

Therefore, it’s a pleasure to be able to report that the much-celebrated Playwrights Horizons production of "James Joyce’s The Dead," probably the hottest ticket in the history of the Theatre Row subscription house, has made the transfer with its sterling cast, not to mention its not inconsiderable artistic integrity, intact.

In fact, the Richard Nelson-Shaun Davey musical adaptation of the last and longest of the 15 stories making up James Joyce’s collection, "Dubliners," first published in England in 1914, has improved, subtly and significantly, since it closed at Playwrights on Nov. 28 and reopened at the Belasco on Dec. 14.

The perfectly cast, 13-actor musical, as effective and as moving as it was on the somewhat cramped stage on 42nd Street, simply breathes more freely and moves more easily in its new home, roughly sharing with the venerable old playhouse its time period, described in the program as "near the turn of the century."

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To cite just one example of the magic that has invaded the intermissionless, 95-minute show since it made the move, consider a moment in Scene 2, with its location defined as "the drawing room arranged for dinner."

The actual dinner given every year by the Misses Julia and Kate Morkan, and their niece, Mary Jane, in what Joyce called "the dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island" is effectively over, at least the eating part of it, and the dishes have been cleared away, and the table moved aside, leaving room for dancing.

What begins with a modest vaudeville parody, "Naughty Girls," performed by the three occupants of the apartment on the second floor of the old structure, Julia, Kate and Mary Jane, all of whom are music teachers, evolves into a kind of frenzied dance when the irascible Mr. Fulham, the churlish, unseen corn factor who has been the Morkans’ landlord for some 30 years, bangs on the ceiling of his ground floor offices in complaint of the noise created by the party.

Emboldened, perhaps, by the wine they had consumed with their meal, the assembled friends and relatives, led by the drunken Freddy Malins and the younger guests, quicken the pace in a number called, suitably enough, "Wake the Dead."

What had been a charming little musical interlude on 42nd Street, adroitly choreographed by Sean Curran, emerges at the Belasco as a full-blown, heart-filling show stopper of Broadway proportions, without sacrificing a single iota of its inherent truthfulness, not to mention its fidelity to the Joycean original.

Perhaps the singular most significant change from the show’s initial performances to its current run, announced to continue through March 11, but clearly structured to continue beyond that date if the audiences keep coming, has been the addition of microphones, unnecessary in the modest confines of Playwrights Horizons, but deemed useful at the Belasco.

Apart from spotting the occasional wire peeping out from the edge of a wig, or snaking up from one or another stiff collar, audiences are unlikely to be bothered by the extremely unobtrusive body mikes, or even to be aware of them at all.

In one instance, the addition of electronic amplification has greatly improved a performance, specifically that of Christopher Walken, who plays Gabriel Conroy, the son of the Morkans’ deceased sister.

At Playwrights Horizons, Walken, not naturally a singer, was sometimes difficult to hear, a situation that has been remedied at the Belasco. This technical correction appears to have given the actor a healthy jolt of self-confidence, with the result that his performance is vastly stronger and more appealing than it was earlier on. Walken, who also serves as narrator for "James Joyce’s The Dead," moving gracefully in and out of the action, frequently addressing the audience directly and intimately, is now giving one of the strongest and most memorable performances currently available on Broadway or off.

The brilliantly assembled company, virtually flawless from the start, is now delivering the sort of nuanced, confident work that can only come with repeated performances under ideal circumstances.

Blair Brown’s glowing warmth as Gretta Conroy, Gabriel’s wife, has grown in richness and sensitivity with the move, as have the performances of Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon, as, respectively, Julia and Kate, and Emily Skinner as their niece.

Stephen Spinella’s Freddy was a standout from the start, as was the work of Paddy Croft as his abashed mother, Mrs. Malins, but in some subtle, arcane manner, they’re even better at the Belasco, as are Alice Ripley as the free-thinking Molly Ivors, Brian Davies as Mr. Browne, "a friend of the aunts," and Daisy Egan, who doubles as Rita, one of Mary Jane’s music students, reappearing late in the show, in one of director-adaptor Nelson’s few debatable alterations, as the apparition of Julia Morkan in her youthful years, summoned up by the declining old aunt.

John Kelly’s version of Bartell D’Arcy, a character supposedly based on tenor John McCormack, might come as a bit of a shock to readers of the story, but he performs well, and makes a distinct contribution to the overall texture of the work.

Special mention should be made of Dashiell Eaves, as Michael, another of Mary Jane Morkan’s students. The young Broadway veteran, who even manages to play the bodhran convincingly, adds immeasurably to the entire proceedings, particularly in the show’s musical aspects.

On the basis of a second hearing, Shaun Davey’s music seems both more sophisticated and more satisfying than appeared to be the case initially. To be fair, the Dublin-born composer was working under certain built-in limitations from the outset, since the majority of the musical numbers had to be kept simple enough to be convincing as items which might have been performed by individuals, some of them musically gifted and others not, performing for the enjoyment of their fellow guests at a dinner party.

Most of the music, therefore, had to be approximations or parodies of the sorts of things the Morkans and their friends would have been familiar with in the course of their daily lives. Only three, or perhaps four, times in the course of "James Joyce’s The Dead" does the music well up out of emotions and actions going on at the moment, as is in the case of the best of examples of the modern, fully integrated musical theater.

"James Joyce’s The Dead" is, everything taken into consideration, an astonishingly rewarding, amazingly successful work, particularly when viewed in terms of the debt it owes its source, one of the greatest stories in the English language, and one of the most readily accessible works by one of Ireland’s truly immortal writers.

This beautifully realized venture, never facile and never a sure bet, appears to have found its audience in the midst of a clutter of crassly pandering Broadway merchandise. "James Joyce’s The Dead" should enjoy a long and healthy life at the Belasco, enriching the lives and lifting the hearts of everyone fortunate enough to experience it.

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