There are conventional choices for a musical libretto—and then there’s James Joyce’s The Dead. The final tale in the Irish author’s 1914 short-story collection Dubliners, “The Dead” is a wee slip of a thing—some 40-odd pages, depending on the version of the text you’re reading. And though it’s set at a holiday party, a quiet, mournful air befitting the title hangs over the events of the story. It’s not exactly the sort of material that screams out “gotta sing, gotta dance.”
Now, admittedly, the same could be said at first glance of many classic musicals. The Sound of Music somehow managed to make something joyous out of fleeing from Nazis, and West Side Story out of gang warfare. But James Joyce’s The Dead—adapted by writer/co-lyricist Richard Nelson and composer/co-lyricist Shaun Davey—feels decidedly like a square peg jammed into a hexagonal hole. Though enjoyable in bits and pieces, it too often suffers from a structure that tries to turn Joyce’s work into something it’s not.
The central event takes place on a snowy Dublin evening in early January 1904 as the elderly Morkan sisters Kate (Leila Martin) and Julia (Alice Cannon) and their niece Miss Mary Jane (Trish Reading) hold their annual holiday celebration. Among the revelers are their nephew Gilbert Conroy (Michael DeVries), an educated fellow visiting with his wife Gretta (Brigid Brady); tipsy Freddy Malins (Sean Arbuckle); proudly nationalist Molly Ivors (Deanne Lorette); and gifted tenor Mr. Bartell D’Arcy (Dillon McCartney). While the pre-dinner time is spent on much singing and dancing, there’s still room for common threads of family gatherings: political arguments, embarrassing behavior and revelations of long-buried events.
The first scene’s merry-go-round of party soloists—the Morkans are music teachers, so the aptitude of their guests feels plenty plausible—sets the stage for an unconventional approach to a musical setup. Director Charles Morey keeps the characters’ action swirling around the room as the singers perform, giving the traditional Irish melodies a feeling more of mood music than look-at-me theatricality; it was almost startling to realize that songs were ending without the audience being cued to applaud. The cast is full of lovely voices, notably DeVries—whose Gilbert also serves as narrator—and Broadway veterans Cannon and Martin. When it’s creating the simple, convivial feel of a house party from the last century, the production satisfies thoroughly.
There’s also Joyceian psychological subtext here, and Nelson and Davey struggle to make it resonate. In part, it’s simply a mistake to remove “The Dead” from the context of Dubliners, where it serves as a punctuation mark on a journey from innocence to experience. Joyce’s story addresses people as creatures of history—the events of the past ever intruding on the present—and occasionally that notion gets a potent voice. Yet there’s also a momentum toward understanding that’s lost with the requisite pauses for musical numbers with more energy, or that are intended as comic relief. Songs that need to carry a huge amount of emotional weight in the final scene simply become literal transcriptions of words from Joyce’s text set to music. And it all ends—improbably and inappropriately—with a big hug.
Those who haven’t spent a lot of time reading Joyce may not be unduly troubled by such matters. It’s easy enough to appreciate a wide range of musical pleasures, or Gary English’s functional yet eerily hollow set, or the big finish that a century of Broadway musicals has taught us to expect. There is much to admire here that is not specifically connected to its degree of fidelity to the source material.
But Nelson and Davey did title this work James Joyce’s The Dead. And that, unfortunately, is precisely what it isn’t.
JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East. Feb. 16 – March 5. 581-6961