Theater review, 'James Joyce's The Dead,' at Court Theatre

TheaterEntertainmentMusical TheaterDeathJames JoyceRepublic of IrelandMichael Phillips

On Broadway and then at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, the musical version of James Joyce's gorgeous short story "The Dead," taken from the 1904 "Dubliners" collection, commanded respect and admiration more than rapture. The annual song-filled holiday party given by the Morkan sisters of Dublin seemed to be happening a long time ago, and in terms of performer/audience proximity, a long way away.

Now comes the Chicago premiere of "James Joyce's The Dead," at the Court Theatre. And what do you know? In a smaller theater, hosting a lovely, deeply felt production that ushers the audience right into the Morkans' second-story drawing room, it's a brand-new, quietly immediate and satisfying experience.

Even with the material's leisurely pace and Chekhovian indirectness — surely this is among the most unassuming musicals ever to appear on Broadway — the Court opening-night audience appeared genuinely shaken up by the 105-minute reverie's cumulative effect. I haven't heard so many sniffles in a long time, and surely they all couldn't be attributed to colds.

The story, filmed so well by a dying John Huston in 1987, exists in a realm of general romantic lamentation, Irish to the bone and as palpable as the snow falling "general all over Ireland" the night of the Morkans' affair. Gabriel Conroy (John Reeger) and his wife, Gretta (Paula Scrofano), are among the guests at Gabriel's aunts' home. For 30 years, narrator Gabriel tells us, Aunts Julia (Deanna Dunagan) and Kate (Kathy Taylor) have fed and entertained their relations and friends on the Feast of the Epiphany.

In director Charles Newell's intimate staging, each guest gets her or his due, and without a lot of the usual musical-theater pizazz. (Too much with this delicate story would sink it, fast.) There's Molly Ivors (Hollis Resnik, with a gleam in each eye), taunting the well-traveled Gabriel about his ambivalence toward his homeland. He, like Joyce, is Irish skepticism incarnate. The unreliable and alcoholic son, Freddy (Christopher Cordon), of the visibly pained Mrs. Malins (Sara Minton), sneaks drinks in between the parlor harmonizing.

There are two deaths to mourn in "The Dead," and in director Charles Newell's staging, both carry the weight they deserve. As played by Dunagan, in a performance of great care, delicacy and craft, Aunt Julia becomes the guiding spirit. Early on, listening to one of the songs being sung 'round the piano, Dunagan's face reveals everything you need to know about the woman's life, without saying a word. This is to be Julia's last holiday party, and in "Queen of Our Hearts," a five-part harmonic standout in the Shaun Davey/Richard Nelson score, the male principals send her off to a candle-lit sleep. (Lovely work here from lighting designer Joel Moritz.)

The other death shadowing "The Dead" is an old one. A song is sung at the party reminding Gretta of her first love, who died of a broken heart. In the final scenes Gretta unpacks her own heart to a jealous, pained Gabriel, as the snow falls outside — a "forgiving" snow, as another character calls it.

Reeger, nicely starched, gently comic but very moving, works this scene with the excellent Scrofano just so. Their respective songs, "Michael Furey" and "The Living and the Dead," may be disappointing, among the weaker in composer/lyricist Davey and lyricist Nelson's score. (The lyrics come from Joyce and from Irish poems of the era.) Yet the emotional texture is full and true.

This is a fine and strong cast all around, blessedly unamplified and backed by a prime onstage quintet led by musical director Jeff Lewis. Cannily, director Newell and scenic designer Brian Bembridge put the drawing room party center stage, with white wooden planks, the piano and no scenery to speak of. The surrounding areas for the other musicians and the performers act as windows onto what is being remembered, rather than spoken.

Most musicals are hares; others, a select few, are tortoises. "The Dead" slowly and steadily wins its own kind of race. It isn't perfect, and it isn't for everyone. It feels like a play with music rather than a musical, which is more a plain fact than a problem, though the material putters a bit in the middle scenes. Director Newell suppresses all applause until the end; the decision is honorable, but rather frustrating.

I can speak only for one half-Irish closet sentimentalist who admired "The Dead" in its official Broadway incarnation without recalling much about it a year or two later. The Court's production I'll remember for a long time. It is a fine-boned but surprisingly powerful accomplishment.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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