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Theater Review: Music gives life to Joyce’s ‘Dead’

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD, by Richard Nelson. Directed by Nelson and Jack Hofsiss. Music composed by Shaun Davey. Featuring Christopher Walken, Blair Brown, Stephen Spinella, Paddy Croft. At Playwrights Horizons, Anne G. Wilder Theater, 416 West 42nd St., NYC. Through Nov. 14.

A rich, deep aura of all-pervading authenticity hovers over the Playwrights Horizons production of what it is officially calling "James Joyce’s The Dead," enveloping it in a quiet warmth that’s seemingly unique in the annals of musical theater.

What’s gracing the small stage on West 42nd Street is, of course, an adaptation, by playwright Richard Nelson, who also co-directed with Jack Hofsiss, and composer Shaun Davey, of the longest and last of the 15 stories which make up the collection "Dubliners," published in 1914.

"The Dead" is probably best known for the magnificent film version John Huston made of it in 1987, the last film the master Irish-American director completed on his own.

The musical incarnation, known simply as "The Dead" during its preparatory period, apparently acquired its full present title shortly before it began playing preview performances, the addition having been made, perhaps, on the theory that the name Joyce gave it might prove off-putting to American audiences.

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Since the American musical is among the most unashamedly and overtly presentational of all theatrical forms, the introspective inwardness of "James Joyce’s The Dead" comes as a distinct surprise.

Music is structured into every one of the 50 pages of "The Dead," since at least three of the participants are teachers of music, while two others are professional or serious avocational performers of music. Virtually all of those in attendance at what Joyce called "the Misses Morkan’s annual dance" are devout lovers of music, individuals who regularly attend concerts, are familiar with the work of performers of the day, and hold strong opinions regarding them.

Even so, in any conventional sense, what’s enrapturing people at Playwrights Horizons is hardly a musical at all, since the ongoing series of solos, duets, trios and reels performed on the second floor of "the dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island," above the offices of "Mr. Fulham, the corn factor on the ground floor," are sung and danced for the amusement of the guests at the event given every year, during the Christmas season, by Julia and Kate Morkan and their niece, Mary Jane, whom the sisters have raised from childhood, following the death of their brother Pat, the girl’s father.

Enchanting as "James Joyce’s The Dead" is, it would seem possible for audiences to feel slightly excluded from the proceedings, since it is a full hour before a musical number arises from one or another character’s subjective or objective emotional response to events taking place within the fabric of the tale being told.

Until then, and afterward, the songs composed by Davey, with lyrics written in collaboration with Nelson, are pastiches or simulations, mainly clever and always effective, of the sorts of party pieces people like the Morkans and their guests might well have performed under the circumstances presented onstage.

The breakout, when it comes, is in response to the disagreeable, unseen corn broker, Mr. Fulham, banging on his ceiling, ostensibly with a broom, in protest to the jollity going on above his head. The Morkans and their guests, most of them fueled by sherry and port, start pounding back, in an exercise that swiftly becomes a kind of jig, wonderfully and simply choreographed by Sean Curran, whose work throughout the show’s 100-minute, intermissionless running time, is inspired.

The moment when a peckish protest becomes a joyous dance provides "James Joyce’s The Dead" with a burst of soaring, expanding, heart-filling of the sort that has made the American musical comedy and musical play the most loved and admired of popular theater forms.

Joyce, an avid amateur singer, specified at least actual songs in the text of "The Dead," one, "Arrayed for the Bridal," sung by Aunt Julia, and another, "The Lass of Aughrim," a well-known lyrical ballad of the period. The last-named is vastly significant in the story as it reminds the heroine, Gretta Conroy, of Michael Furey, a boy, dead at 17, whom she had loved when she was very young, and of whom she still frequently thinks with a fondness that makes her loving husband, Gabriel, an outsider.

Impeccable cast

With one or two possible exceptions, the Playwrights Horizons production of "James Joyce’s The Dead" is impeccably cast, just as the text of the musical version stays admirably close to the great original.

As Gabriel Conroy, Christopher Walken, a former chorus dancer in Broadway musicals, seems to be struggling a bit against miscasting, and even appears somewhat at odds with the music. In no way a strong singer, the actor eventually wins out and delivers a strong performance, particularly in his character’s function of periodic narrator, stepping forward and addressing the audience directly.

Blair Brown’s Gretta is a graceful, substantial creature to which the actress brings a surprisingly strong singing voice, and a wholly sympathetic personality.

The real singers in the company, Sally Anne Howes and Marni Nixon as, respectively, Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate, Emily Skinner as Mary Jane, and Alice Ripley as the budding Republican activist Molly Ivors, make rich and valid contributions. Perhaps special mention should be accorded Howes, a fine, strong singing actress here asked to perform a difficult feat, portrays a proud singer who has been dismissed from her cherished position in a choral society because she is, in fact, losing her voice.

As D’Arcy, the odd singer and performance artist John Kelly sings adroitly but never really conjures up the immortal McCormack, nor does he quite seem to fit into the Morkans’ social circle.

Standouts in the cast are Stephen Spinella, in a graceful and oddly moving turn as the alcoholic Freddy Malins, and the unfailing Paddy Croft as his endlessly mortified mother. Croft’s astringently underplayed Mrs. Malins is an effective follow-up to the excellent, little-seen performance she gave late last season when she replaced English actress Judy Parfitt as the domineering dowager in the last few weeks of the run of the Broadway revival of "Night Must Fall."

A particular highlight is provided by Dashiell Eaves, who, as Michael, a music student of Mary Jane’s, displays a strongly lyrical singing voice and a certain skill playing the bodhran.

Daisy Eagen, who scored as a juvenile performer in "The Secret Garden" a few seasons ago, plays another student of the Morkans’ niece, and then reappears at the core of one of the few mistakes Nelson and Davey have made in adapting Joyce. They have made Julia Morkan, frail in the original, a dying woman in the musical, complete with a vision of her younger self, played by Eagan, who appears at the elderly woman’s deathbed and leads her off into a dark night in which, to quote the story’s most famous line, "snow was general all over Ireland."

A quibble or two aside, "James Joyce’s The Dead" emerges as a memorable work, one fully capable of lingering in the mind long after the actors have taken their bows and the stage lights at Playwrights Horizons have dimmed out. After the current, brief, sold-out run ends, the production will be moved to another venue, as yet undetermined, where it can accommodate a larger audience and enjoy the ongoing life it so richly deserves.

One singular and pervasive aspect of "James Joyce’s The Dead" is the rare and intense degree to which the participants actually seem to know one another, as comfortable and familiar with one another, unilaterally, not as actors, but as the people who climbed the stairs, holiday season after holiday season, to celebrate with the Misses Morkan in the rooms above the corn factor’s headquarters, would have been.

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