Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Dec. 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
When Court Theatre staged “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’” two years in a row a decade ago, some of us (myself included) thought Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey’s beautiful, if melancholy, show would become an annual holiday tradition.
It didn’t. But this year Artistic Director Charles Newell is revisiting what was his first-ever musical at the theater, and he’s doing it with the help of Music Director Doug Peck, who made his Court debut back then and has collaborated with Newell on seven musicals since.
“The Dead,” which is based on the famous story in “Dubliners,” benefits from their long association and an inspired innovation. Instead of having separate musicians perform Davey’s score like last time, all the music is played by the actor/singers, except for Peck on piano. And, beyond that, each instrument seems to be assigned in a way that makes sense for the character — with Lily (Suzanne Gillen), the lively maid, on flute, for example, and Mr. Browne (Steve Tomlitz), the only Protestant in the group, on cello —which must have been a casting challenge, to say the least. The whole ensemble pitches in on harmoniums, bodhrans, and other instruments, too.
The effect is to fully integrate the music into what is, after all, a party, specifically a celebration on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, 1904. Furthermore, the hostesses, the Misses Morkan, are a musical family. Aunt Julia (Mary Ernster), the eldest, until recently sang in the church choir, while Aunt Kate (Anne Gunn) and their niece, Mary Jane (Regina Leslie; violin), give private music lessons. Their guest of honor, Bartell D’Arcy (J. Michael Finley), is an opera singer. The first hour or so is spent with everyone taking turns performing pieces they’ve prepared for the occasion, many of which sound like traditional Irish folk songs though they were created entirely by Nelson and Davey, in some cases with lyrics culled from Joyce and other sources, among them an 1898 operetta and Oliver Goldsmith’s works.
Gradually, though, the songs shift from being explicit performances to expressions of the characters’ inner emotions. This starts with the narrator, Gabriel Conroy’s (Philip Earl Johnson), asides about his aunts and cousin in “The Three Graces” and climaxes with his epiphany about his wife, Gretta (Susie McMonagle), and “Michael Furey,” the dead youth who was the love of her life.
While the ensemble handles the musical transitions very well, and Scott Davis’ scenic design is striking, some aspects of Nelson’s book and the production are problematic. Unless you read the blurb in the program, figuring out who’s who and their relationships to each other is difficult, especially since about half of the characters remain poorly defined. We learn little to nothing about Aunt Julia’s student, Rita (Rachel Klippel), for instance, nor do we know why Gabriel’s comments to Lily provoke her anger. The animosity between him and his colleague, Molly Ivors (Lara Filip), also remains unexplained and must go beyond her passion for Irish authenticity and patriotism and his lack thereof. Mary Jane’s student, Michael (Jim DeSelm; in guitar), flirts lightly with one of the girls but seems to be there mostly to spark Gretta’s memory of her long-lost Michael. All we know about Mr. Browne is that he’s Protestant, and Mrs. Malins (Rebecca Finnegan) is defined by her irritation at her son, Freddy (an animated Rob Lindley), for arriving late and “screwed” (drunk), though we do see her affection for him later on. His burst of rage in “Wake the Dead” results in a number that’s rousing but oddly out of place, even if it is prompted by the landlord banging on the ceiling below to stop the noise.
Newell’s blocking at the beginning, with guests clumped in corners, may mirror what happens at real parties, but it leaves the middle of the stage disconcertingly empty. Later on, stunning visual images — including of the snow falling “general all over Ireland” — alternate with awkward sections.
Most troubling of all, though, is that Gabriel’s devastating epiphany about Gretta, just as his love and desire for her have been renewed, doesn‘t have the power it should. Maybe that’s because we don’t feel much connection, much less chemistry, between them beforehand. There’s a slight friction but no sense of anything significant that’s about to be lost.
For me, the most moving character in “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’” remains Aunt Julia, whose encounter with the dead — in the form of her younger self — is simultaneously incredibly sad and joyful. Ernster plays and sings the role with just the right mix of strength and poignancy, though I confess she didn’t touch my soul quite as much as Deanna Dunagan in 2003.