Bear this in mind when people tell you that Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey’s musical adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead,
the Simply New Theatre production at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard
Studio, somehow betrays the original source. Their purpose was never to
provide a pony for lazy students, who will be in trouble at exam time
if they rely on this version. Instead Nelson and Davey wanted to give
audiences a good time, to create unexpected art, and to touch the funny
bone and the heart. And, boy, do they.
We see Dead people: Aubry Ludington Panek and Kevin McNamara in Simply New’s The Dead.
The Dead, the concluding and longest story in Joyce’s celebrated collection Dubliners (1914), will seem to many an unlikely source for popular entertainment, not unlike Robert Zemeckis’ animated, 3-D version of Beowulf (2007).
For three generations of college students Joyce has been a daunting
high modernist, whose narratives are flush with profound subtext. A
recent essay on the story examines what people drink and notes the
significance of only Mr. Brown, the sole Protestant, drinking any
whiskey (in Irish Gaelic, the “water of life”). On first reading,
however, The Dead seems as accessible as any work by one of our
better short story writers, say John Cheever or Joyce Carol Oates. And
you don’t need Cliff’s Notes to get most of the humor.
That said, a large part of the audience
(which sold out on opening night) might be confused or disoriented for
the first few moments if, for example, they’ve never heard of James
Joyce. Secondly, there’s the accepting of the title “the Dead” when the
action centers on a genteel house party at the Epiphany, the end of the
Christmas season. Put aside allusions to Stephen King or Stephenie
Meyer. Joyce gives about a hundred reasons why the story has such a
title, beginning with the first word, “Lily,” the name of a servant,
and also the flower for funerals. Most important is the shocked
discovery by a young husband, Gabriel Conroy (Kevin McNamara), that his
wife Gretta (Aubry Panek) still yearns for a lover from teenage years,
and that she thinks he died for her.
Because Joyce does not enjoy the huge
lay readership of a Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, some audience
members will be surprised that the world of The Dead ever
existed at all. People at the party given by the three Morkans, elderly
Aunt Julia (Lorraine Grande) and Aunt Kate (Catherine Rush Osinski) and
younger Mary Jane (Katherine Gibson), talk informedly about opera,
especially Italian opera, and find the upstart Enrico Caruso (The Dead’s
action takes place in 1907) inferior to his predecessors. Before
independence Dublin was a provincial rather than national capital,
shabby and suffering from an inferiority complex. Party-goers are urban
and urbane, but they are not rich. The Morkans have rented their small
apartment from a Mr. Fulham, a grain dealer, who lives below and
complains about the noise.
While the young couple, Gabriel and
Gretta, become subtly developed characters at the center of the action,
much of what happens in the three-act, 2 1/2-hour drama is driven by
events at the party, almost as if we were non-speaking guests
ourselves. Playwright Nelson (who also scripted the musical Chess)
draws from the Irish tradition of self-entertainment, in which every
guest arrives with a “party piece,” a tradition still flourishing in
Central New York. Belfast-born composer Davey, previously known for
film scores like The Chronicles of Narnia, won a Tony for a musical score with songs in three modes, changing the pace within each act.
One is a recreation of the limpid,
late-Victorian art songs that Joyce loved. Consider the excellent duet
“Goldenhair” at the end of the first act, which evokes some of the
lyrics of “The Lass of Aughrim,” cited in the story, but with less
sugar. A second is a theatrical approximation of Irish traditional
music, as in the (literally) foot-stomping “Wake the Dead,” climaxing
the second act. And a third is an evocation of long-gone English
musical hall entertainment like “Naughty Girls,” in which the Morkan
ladies parade with parasols.
Part of the musical Dead’s
appeal is music they really don’t write any more, not only pre-Sondheim
but pre-Jerome Kern. The musical ensemble, seen at the edge of the
action, includes a vintage piano, as well as cello and violin, and,
when needed, an accordion.
Director John Nara’s casting of the
large number of roles includes many people new to his company as well
as regulars and also demonstrates his sharp eye for talent wherever it
lies. Even in the small, otherwise unrewarding role of Mr. Grace, who
reads a dour poem from early Ireland, Nara has cast Michael O’Neill, a
previous winner of the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater award. Lithe, dark Jillian Dailey, star of Simply New’s recent My Name is Rachel Corrie,
sharpens the sting of tart-tongued Miss Molly Ivors, who insults
Gabriel’s intentions. Versatile Joe Pierce has grown mutton-chops for
the haughty Anglo-Irishman (i.e. upper class) Mr. Brown. Shannon
Tompkins, also The Dead’s choreographer, keeps pulling your eye as the insouciant servant Lily, stealing a drink when no one is looking.
Red-haired Aubry Ludington Panek, still
radiant after 15 years on local boards and two children offstage,
commands every scene when she steps forward, and her third-act solo,
“Michael Furey,” after her lost lover, breaks hearts. She shows off
Garrett Heater’s highly professional costumes to great effect. The much
more paradoxical character of Gabriel, what critics say Joyce feared he
would become if he did not leave Ireland, presents more of a challenge
to veteran Kevin McNamara, who reaches his best moments in the finale,
“The Living and the Dead.”
The three Morkan ladies open the show
with the faux folk song “Killarney Lakes,” and each has moments of
distinction. Most memorable is the elderly Julia’s failed attempt to
get up the notes for “When a Lovely Lady Stoops,” with distinguished
jazz singer Lorraine Grande constricting her voice into a croak. She
had been goaded into performing by puffed-up praise from heedless
Freddy Malins (Bill Molesky). The widespread discomfort this engenders
is Joyce’s way of signaling Gabriel’s unease with the whole affair.
Freddy, arriving inebriated and late,
joins his ever-scowling mother (Susan Blumer) to become an uproarious
if unexpected comedy team. The audience can’t get enough of them. But
director Nara, prudently, forestalls scene larceny in favor of the
comic-tinged anxiety Joyce had in mind.
Nara, together with his producer Bill Molesky, appear to have pulled out all the stops for The Dead,
probably Simply New’s poshest production ever. The set with proscenium
arch, designed by Gertie Swanson, Heater’s costumes and dramatic
lighting also designed by Swanson, especially in the last act, take the
intimate BeVard Studio to places it has never been before. On the way
out a couple newly arrived in town asked if The Dead was a
professional production or really “only” community theater. Instead,
that’s what we turn out here when we have our act together.
This production runs through Sunday, Oct. 25. See Times Table for information.