|A CurtainUp Review
James Joyce's The Dead
Tickets to the initial, limited run of the musical adaptation of the last and best-known of James Joyce's Dubliner stories were scarcer than taxis during a rainy rush hour. That ticket shortage applied to critics as well. Not having seen James Joyce's The Dead during that initial run I can't compare it with the production now at the Belasco. What I can report is that it's a charming and original work that's true enough to the music in Joyce's novella and different enough to give vivid life to its actual musical elements. The performances have most likely grown richer with experience and the luxury of a larger stage in a theater atmospherically in keeping with the play's turn-of-the-century time frame.
The plot which is built on small moments and relies for surprises on the internal thought processes of teacher-journalist Gabriel Conroy is hardly the stuff of high drama. On the other hand, structured as it is around the annual Christmas party given by three spinster music teachers, with much singing, dancing and talk about music to go with the turkey and pudding, translating this novella from page to stage as a musical makes perfect sense.
Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey have faithfully recreated Joyce's Christmas party and the personalities of those in attendance. The music they've inserted into the script is perfectly attuned to Joyce's mood. As they have substituted and added songs and lyrics to those referred to in the story, they have remained true to Joyce's poetic blend of celebration and the melancholy shadow of death, but not slavishly so. Thanks to the magnificent ensemble work of the company even some of the more drastic adjustments don't mar the pleasures of what, to borrow from another unique new musical (Contact, a dance play) is best described as a musical play.
The action, basically a series of heartwarming moments, unfolds for the most part in the home of the elderly Morkan sisters, Julia (Sally Ann Howes) and Kate (Marni Nixon), and their niece Mary Jane (Emily Skinner). When the party ends the scene shifts to the hotel where Gabriel Conroy (Christopher Walken) and his wife Gretta (Blair Brown) are spending the night. Here the flashes of sadness that overhung the merrymaking comes to full force in Gabriel's transforming realization that his wife will never forget another man, the passionate young Michael Furey who literally died for love of her.
To deal with the complex internalized elements of the story, Nelson and Shauney, have made Gabriel both narrator and character. As narrator, he speaks directly to the audience with the guests either going into a freeze frame or at one point cleverly continue to act as if the character were still in their midst while Gabriel the narrator moves between them addressing the audience. These narrated monologues work quite well and strengthen the musical's literary underpinnings. True, Walken is not much of a singer (though his weakness in the voice department is a serious minus only in his final scene), but he inhabits his dual role with conviction and feeling. He has a very special charisma that imbues his scenes with his wife with real passion. Blair Brown's richly portrayed Gretta has a voice that's so fine and clear that the two duets, "Adieu to Ballyshannon" and "Goldenhair," which she sings with Walken make you completely forget his vocal shortcomings.
The songs (with lyrics drawn mostly from poetry, including one by Joyce) and dances interspersed with nicely nuanced and subtle character defining moments are diverse, melodic and fun. (Since this second run is also limited, a CD would be a more than welcome). Some of the musicians are right on stage (think Cabaret) while the rest of the small band remains unseen at the side of the stage. The big production number begins with Kate and Julia sing the deliciously risque "Naughty Girl" complete with music-hall leg kicks which prompt the guests to join them in a sort of Irish conga line.
The two veteran actor-singers, Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon, are warm and affectionate as the Morkan sisters. Nixon conveys just the right tearful concern for her ailing sister. It's too bad that she wasn't given a solo. The two singers who were attached at the hip in Side Show do very well in their separate role, Alice Ripley as the Irish nationalist Molly Ivers and Emily Skinner as the Morkan sisters' niece.
If you asked me to pick a standout in the generally excellent ensemble, it would have to be Stephen Spinella, best known for his role in dramas such Angels In America and Electra and here the droll Freddy Malins. Freddy, who unfailingly has everyone in a dither as to whether he'll show up drunk, is a marvel of high-spirited, singing and dancing silliness. We root for him to coax his sober-faced mum (the excellent Paddy Croft) onto the dance floor, which he, of course, does. We are drawn to his wide-eyed, open-mouthed intensity even when he's sitting quietly at the sidelines.
Mr. Nelson who is the director (originally co-director) as well as co-adapter and lyricist, has gathered a fine design team along with the stellar performers. David Jenkins' true to the period set is subtly lit by Jennifer Tipton. Jane Greenwood has done her usual good work in the costume department, with Gretta's bright red gown a brilliant centerpiece amidst the more sedately clad older women.
Joyce ended his story with this sentence : "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end upon all the living and the dead." If the ending of the adaptation now playing at the Belasco falls somewhat short of that poetic perfection, this is nevertheless as finely tuned and original a piece of musical theater you're likely to find anywhere else, on or off-Broadway. A first-time or re-reading will increase your appreciation for what those involved with this production have wrought and with this in mind, the links below to several inexpensive editions, including an audio cassette.
The Dead and Other Stories (audio cassette -- one of the narrators is the son of John Huston, director of the film version
Paper edition with introduction by novelist/short story writer/ playwright Edna O'Brien