James Joyce's The Dead
As James Joyce's The Dead comes to a close, tiny snowflakes swirl about, and the set looks like nothing so much as a snowglobe. The image is a fitting one, for the show itself is a lovingly recreated moment in time.
That moment, for those who need a refresher on James Joyce's short story (from The Dubliners), is a Christmas party in turn-of-the-century Dublin, at the home of the Misses Morkan and their niece, all three music teachers. The Misses Morkan have invited friends and family for an evening of good food and cheer. The partygoers themselves provide the entertainment, as they take turns performing Irish musical numbers (many of which sound as though they are traditional folk songs, but are in fact original melodies accompanied by lyrics adapted from Irish poems).
The characters are singing for each other, not the audience. The songs are not performance pieces. These are not virtuoso performers, standing center-stage and bringing the house down with the sheer power of their renditions. Nor are they characters communicating their thoughts to each other, or soliloquizing, through the medium of music. Instead, the songs give insight into the nature of the characters only by the act of singing them. For the Misses Morkan and their guests love music, and we learn all we need to know by the way they react to their songs -- from the staunch patriotism of their guest Molly Ivors to the pain of Julia Morkan when she must acknowledge her once-beautiful voice is not what it used to be.
The ensemble cast is excellent. This show was a last-minute replacement for Finian's Rainbow (itself a last-minute replacement for The Night They Raided Minsky's), but the presence of a core group of performers from the original Broadway company makes this production seem anything but hastily thrown together. The additions to the company for Los Angeles easily meld with the original cast members, to recreate Joyce's party. Particularly notable is Stephen Bogardus, as the Misses Morkan's nephew Gabriel, who also serves as narrator. This double-duty is easy for him, as the character of Gabriel, more than anyone else, finds it difficult to express himself in song with the reckless abandon of the others. Indeed, Gabriel's inability to express his emotions becomes, paradoxically, the emotional center of the play, and Bogardus's subtle portrayal makes Gabriel all the more effective.
A less delicate performance comes from Stephen Spinella, as the perenially-drunk Freddy Malins. Spinella plays his drunkenness to the balcony, which is out of place in the tiny, self-contained world of this play. But this flaw is readily overlooked, as Spinella has the hardest job in the show. About two-thirds of the way in, James Joyce's The Deadis transformed from a "play with music" into a full-fledged musical, and the task falls to Spinella to execute the transition smoothly. Perhaps it is only because of his drunkenness, but Freddy Malins reaches a point where he can only express his thoughts through song, and, at his instigation, the company bursts into a joyous number. It is seamlessly executed, and not only marks the show's movement into more traditional musical territory, but is really the one place where the onstage emotions leap off the stage and engage the audience.
And the play then returns to its own world, its precious world where a song is a gift, a memory is a comfort, and a man's discovery of his inability to relate to those he loves is devastating. James Joyce's
The Dead is not a big, spectacular musical – the set is small, it features few musical numbers aspiring performers will endlessly repeat at auditions, and there are no special effects to speak of. Unless you count the snow, which is, in its own way, special.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer, in association with Gregory Mosher & Arielle Tepper presents the Playwrights Horizons production (Tim Sanford, Artistic Director) of James Joyce's The Dead. Book by Richard Nelson. Music by Shaun Davey. Lyrics conceived and adapted by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey. Directed by Richard Nelson.
Aunt Julia Morkan - Sally Ann Howes