Broadway Raises "The Dead": Joyce's story finds a lively yet perfectly haunting fit

A Review of James Joyce The Dead

Review by Fintan O'Toole
New York Daily News

JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD. Book by Richard Nelson. Based on the story by James Joyce. Music by Shaun Davey. Lyrics conceived and adapted by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey. With Christopher Walken, Blair Brown, Sally Ann Howes, Marni Nixon, Emily Skinner, Brian Davies, Alice Ripley, Stephen Spinella, Paddy Croft, John Kelly. Sets by David Jenkins. Choreography by Sean Curran. Directed by Richard Nelson. At the Belasco. Tickets $25-$75; (212) 239-6200.

To some snobs, putting James Joyce together with the Broadway musical may be like performing "Swan Lake" in the middle of a disco. Surely the complex art of the great master of prose will be debased by the glamour and glitz of the Great White Way?

But to anyone with a feel for Joyce's work, the marriage does not seem so inevitably doomed -- because the stream that waters Joyce's great stories is, in fact, popular music. For example, it's a love of light opera and music-hall songs that ties together the people of his masterpiece, "Ulysses."

More than any other great prose writer, Joyce comes with a built-in soundtrack. And it is at its loudest and most joyous in "The Dead," from which Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey have fashioned a hauntingly beautiful musical. We know from John Huston's superb movie of 1987 that "The Dead" can be successfully dramatized. But in turning it into a musical, Nelson and Davey are confronted with an unusual problem. The task is almost too easy.

Most of the "The Dead" takes place at a Christmas party in Dublin about a century ago. The three hostesses, the aged sisters Julia and Kate Morkan and their niece Mary Jane, are all music teachers. So, much of the evening naturally is given over to song.

Because each of the main characters sings a party piece, the temptation is to go with the flow and drift into soft Victorian nostalgia. But this would be fatally untrue to the story. For what concerns Joyce is not just the music but also the way songs summon memories of the dead.

The power of "The Dead" lies in the wonderfully delicate balance between the vivid joy of a festive celebration and the ghostly recollection of those who are no longer present at life's feast.

One of these ghosts enters the apparently contented world of a guest at the party, the middle-aged journalist Gabriel Conroy. A song triggers for his wife, Greta, the memory of a former sweetheart who died for love of her. He realizes that the dead boy still has a hold on her most-private feelings.

What the music has to do, therefore, is to provide this strange bridge between the present and the past. The key to the success of the show is that composer Davey does precisely this. His songs are a seamless blend of old and new. Ancient Irish poems and lyrics are set to beautiful airs that evoke traditional melodies, while being at the same time fresh and original.

With this key, Nelson's production opens up the story's many layers of exuberance, tenderness and melancholy. He makes Christopher Walken's Gabriel into a narrator who wraps the action in a blanket of bittersweet remembrance.

Walken's relatively weak singing voice and cold, edgy presence make this a risky piece of casting. But he has a shadowy, haunted quality that exerts a grip of its own.

In any case, the show has, in Blair Brown's regal Greta, a vocal presence and a human warmth that fill in the gaps left by Walken's weaknesses and a dramatic intelligence that complements his strengths.

With the rest of the cast, Nelson's search for realism sometimes results in awkwardness. But far more often there is a wonderfully detailed exchange of sympathy and affection.

The result is a show like nothing else on Broadway: gentle but unsentimental, serious but always lively, open-ended but utterly satisfying -- a memory of the dead that pulses with theatrical life.