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Melancholy Christmas: Nobel and Dana in James Joyce’s The Dead.

A Flicker of Joyce

By Kathryn Geurin

James Joyce’s The Dead

Book by Richard Nelson, music by Shaun Davey, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill Capital Repertory Theatre, Through April 5

James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the fi nal and most acclaimed story in Dubliners, may appear to be a simple vignette of an annual Christmas party in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Taken as such, the party—thrown at the home of the aging Morkan sisters and their young niece, musicians all—might be considered good fodder for a lighthearted period musical, infused with the hearty and haunting strains of Irish music. But “The Dead” is not that simple, and much of the story’s significance has been lost in translation between Joyce’s pen and the Broadway stage. The book’s narrative passages, lifted verbatim from “The Dead,” are exquisite. But it was Nelson’s task to craft a powerful book to connect Joyce’s words and convey the story in a new medium, and here the book fails.

Joyce’s story centers on Gabriel Conroy, favorite nephew of the Morkan sisters, who serves also as narrator in the adaptation. “The Dead” is largely autobiographical, and Gabriel’s discomfort with every interaction reflects Joyce’s harsh criticism of Irish society—the title references not only those passed, but the living dead who plod through habitual lives. In the story, the party is tinged with constraint and awkwardness. The pivotal conflict and final clarity are private and internalized.

An uncomfortable party and a private transformation would, of course, make for a dull Broadway musical, so Nelson navigates the tale into jolly waters and unfurls a melodramatic marital dispute for his dramatic climax. Joyce’s subtle study of character and culture is lost, and the book is left floundering between a shallow musical romp and anticlimactic tedium.

The score, which is mainly offered as naturally flowing party entertainment performed by the hostesses and their various guests, draws largely on traditional Irish texts and lyrics, with original music composed by Shaun Davey. With the exception of a few numbers—namely “Naughty Girls,” “Wake the Dead,” “D’Arcy’s Aria” and “The Living and the Dead”—most of the songs are entirely forgettable. The songs echo Irish folk and turn-of-the-century art song, but without the purity and passion that makes their inspirations endure.

The play’s format creates a huge challenge for the performers, demanding them to serve as actors, singers, dan cers and multi-instrumentalists. While some of the actors delivered powerful performances, the production overall was extremely inconsistent. Many of the ensemble numbers, while well executed, lacked the visceral rhythm and energy of the best Irish music.

As Gabriel, Don Nobel delivers a conflicted, vulnerable and confident performance, and proves adept at conveying the poetry of Joyce’s words. Unfortunately, in her portrayal of Gabriel’s wife, Gretta, Lezlie Dana offers little more than thready vocals and fraught melodramatics. Carol Charniga presents an intricate and delightful portrait of the fading Julia Morkan, and Emily Mikesell easily steals her few scenes as the feisty Molly Ivors. David Sutton tossed out his few well-timed one-liners as Bartell D’Arcy, and briefly transformed the theater into an opera house with his powerful second-act aria. The show’s best performance came from David Girard, who created a deeply complex and highly comic portrait of tippler Freddy Malins from his first entrance, and boldly led the cast in the production’s most vigorous number, “Wake the Dead.”

While director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill does little to draw Joyce’s underlying nuance from her actors (and stages an unfortunate number of slow-motion party scenes under Gabriel’s narration), she excels with her technical team. Thom Heyer’s period costumes are richly detailed without being overstated, and the sepia palette complements Ted Simpson’s set design. Since much of the cast is onstage for the bulk of the play, the limited space of Capital Repertory Theatre’s small stage presents a challenge for the 13-actor musical. Heyer’s set is smartly simple, creating a period home with a few carefully-selected furniture pieces, candle sconces, parquet floor and baroque scrim. The paneled scrim serves as wallpaper for much of the production, dividing rooms when needed. But in the skilled hands of Stephen Quandt, the same scrim is transformed from wallpaper to heavenly incandescence to a beautifully backlit garden gate, creating a handful of exquisite pictures in the second act.

The scrim, while well used, also closes off a large portion of the stage for much of the show, space that choreographer Susan Caputo sorely needed. As a result, much of the choreography is tight, measured and predictable. The few numbers that resound with life and energy utilize the full stage space.

The final number, powerfully composed, beautifully staged, and superbly performed by Nobel and cast, is one of the production’s finest moments. Unfortunately, Nelson and Davey felt compelled to rewrite Joyce’s poignant final lines, demonstrating to the end their willingness to bastardize Joyce’s delicate poetics.

 


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