"The Dead Works" as a Musical

A Review of James Joyce The Dead

Review by Michael Kuchwara
AP Drama Critic

NEW YORK -- Well, it sounds impossible -- turning "The Dead," James Joyce's haunting meditation on the power of the past over the present, into a musical.

That the production works as well as it does is a credit to adapter Richard Nelson and composer Shaun Davey, who, for much of the evening, capture the lingering melancholy and generous humor that permeate Joyce's evocative short story.

With one crucial exception, they have cast this musical play -- there's no other way to describe it -- with care. The flaw isn't fatal but it harms a show that needs to be sung as well as it is acted.

"The Dead," which opened Thursday at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, exudes plenty of atmosphere and charm. It tells the tale of the elderly Morken sisters and their annual Christmas party in turn-of-the-century Dublin.

Julia (an incandescent Sally Ann Howes) is in failing health. Yet her voice still retains much of its former glory when she was queen of the church choir. Sister Kate (an equally fine Marni Nixon) flutters, frets and cries over the decline of her beloved sibling.

The two sisters share their house with niece Mary Jane (Emily Skinner). The three women are music teachers, and music figures prominently in their Yuletide celebration.

What Davey has done is to draw on a variety of sources for the lyrics -- Irish poems from the 18th and 19th century, Joyce's original text for "The Dead," and new work by Nelson.

At first, the show seems more like a concert than a musical -- with the Morken household used as a backdrop for the songs. The musical takes shape gradually as various guests join in the festivities.

The most boisterous, Freddy Malins, arrives late and a little looped, much to the consternation of his mother, played by the deliciously dour Paddy Croft, a perfect Margaret Hamilton look-alike. Stephen Spinella, a Tony winner for "Angels in America," shows considerable talent for musical comedy as the tipsy Freddy.

Despite having a minimal amount of material, such accomplished musical theater folk as Skinner, Alice Ripley and Brian Davies manage to make memorable impressions. So does performance artist John Kelly who gets to serenade Aunt Julia with an Italian aria in her bedroom.

Yet the creators of "The Dead" have made one peculiar casting decision: hiring Christopher Walken to play the pivotal role of Gabriel Conroy, the troubled man who, in this stage version, narrates Joyce's tale.

Walken is a very American actor in his manner and in his speech. He seems out of place in this most Irish of stories. He also can't handle the songs, especially the evening's final number which crucially brings together the show's two divergent strands.

Joyce's story is constructed in such a way that it shifts dramatically near the end from the party to Conroy and his wife, Gretta. Conroy, nephew to the Morken sisters, realizes that his wife, played here by a warm and lovely Blair Brown, is distracted and unhappy.

Conroy thinks her concern is for him, but, in fact, she is remembering a young man who died years ago. It's a memory she can't shake and one which will now obsess her husband.

Nelson, who shares directorial credit with Jack Hofsiss, awkwardly handles the ending. In it, Walken looks more ill-at-ease than filled with sorrow at the crucial moment when Conroy discovers his wife's true feelings.

Yet there are some vivid images, heartfelt and theatrical at the same time. In one, the old Julia confronts her younger self, played by Daisy Egan. Both Howes and Egan wring the tears out of "When Lovely Lady," one of Davey's more plaintive melodies.

But then that's what this evening is about, sighs and smiles, tears and tenderness, displayed on a very human scale. Audiences expecting to be overwhelmed by production numbers will be disappointed. Even the settings are bare bones, simple but effective in re-creating the plain Morken living room and the Conroy bedroom.

In the end, "The Dead" is a small, special evening of musical theater, but within its narrow confines beats a heart that is rare, true and often highly original.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press