Chicago Theater Review: JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD (Court Theatre)

by Dan Zeff on November 19, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ at the Court Theatre in ChicagoJames Joyce is not usually considered a source of Christmas cheer, but the great Irish author did write one Christmas piece of sorts, a short story called The Dead that appeared in his story collection Dubliners. The tale was adapted into a musical that had a decent run off and on Broadway in 1999 and 2000. Chicago’s Court Theatre presented the show in 2002 and 2003 and is now reviving The Dead in a tweaked and much improved version.

The Dead takes place in Dublin on January 6, 1904, during the Feast of the Epiphany. The occasion is the annual holiday party given by a pair of elderly sisters, Julia and Kate Morkan. The sisters are hosting 10 guests and the audience needs a scorecard to identify all the characters and their relationships (the playbill provides a helpful listing that spectators should prudently absorb before the show begins). In addition to the hostesses, the partygoers include niece Mary Ann and nephew Gabriel Conroy with his wife, Gretta. The guests are rounded out by friends Mr. Browne, Mrs. Malins, her son Freddy, Molly Ivors, a celebrity opera singer named Bartell D’Arcy, and two music students named Michael and Rita. Lily, the Morkan maid, rounds out the personnel.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ at the Court Theatre in ChicagoThere is much bustle during The Dead but little meaningful happens. There is considerable singing and some dancing, a bit of storytelling, a toast, and a little bickering. During the 1 hour and 45 one act musical, the characters gather, interact, and then depart into the night as the party ends. The narrative is presented as a memory play narrated by the rather chilly Gabriel many years later. The only really dramatic event, which involves Gabriel and Gretta, occurs in the final moments.

The casting at the Court is flawless. The dialogue may be casual but when spoken with an Irish accent the language somehow converts into poetry and the most banal lines sound witty and eloquent. And the entire Court cast delivered their brogues impeccably. But the glory of The Dead resides in the musical score by Shaun Davey and the lyrics by Davey and book author Richard Nelson. The music is an eclectic blend of traditional Irish songs—with lyrics adapted from Irish poetry and the James Joyce short story—and original numbers by Nelson and Davey. Virtually every character on stage sings at least one showcase number, with the first among equals being Mary Ernster in her sympathetic and sensitive portrayal of Julia Morkan. Susie McMonagle has some golden vocal moments as Gretta, and J. Michael Finley delivers a potent operatic number as D’Arcy.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ at the Court Theatre in Chicago

The most entertaining portrayal of the night comes from Rob Lindley as the alcoholic young Freddy Malins. Normally stage drunks are thoroughly unappealing, but Lindley’s Freddy is funny, passionate, innocently gauche, and poignant. Philip Earl Johnson gives a praiseworthy performance as Gabriel Conroy, our guide through the musical and the character most altered by the end of the show. But the entire ensemble deserves listing on the ensemble honor roll—Anne Gunn as Kate Morkan, Regina Leslie as Mary Jane, Suzanne Gillen as the maid, Steve Tomlitz as Mr. Browne, Lara Filip as Molly Ivors, Jim DeSelm as Michael, Rachel Klippel as both Rita and a recreation of Julia as a young girl in a dream sequence, and Rebecca Finnegan as Freddy’s starchy mother.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ at the Court Theatre in ChicagoIn a deft twist, the characters provide the musical accompaniment, with Leslie playing violin, Gillen the flute, DeSelm the guitar, ands Tomlitz the cello. Other characters join in from time to time on hand held drums. Musical director Doug Peck sits discreetly at the rear of the stage, playing the piano with his back to the audience. Cumulatively, the musicians produce a folkish sound that beautifully enhances the elegiac, nostalgic flavor of the entire enterprise.

Director Charles Newell creates some striking stage pictures as he arranges groups of actors on various areas of the stage. The set by Scott Davis is minimal, with doorways at the rear and a mostly open area thrusting into the audience, occupied by tables and chairs moved on and off the stage by the ensemble. Linda Roethke’s costumes perfectly evoke the turn of the last century aura of the period. Josh Horvath designed the sound and Jennifer Tipton the lighting.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ at the Court Theatre in Chicago

Because of the absence of vigorous physical activity (other than the dancing), The Dead has been called a Chekhovian musical, with the emotions seething below the ordinary surface of the narrative in the subtle Chekhov manner. Some viewers could find the lack of action tedious and the entire enterprise boring, however commendable the performances (this is a charge that could be leveled at the 2002 Court staging). The beauty of The Dead may be in the eye and ear of the beholder, but I think the production is brilliant.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ at the Court Theatre in Chicago

photos by Michael Brosilow

James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’
Court Theatre
scheduled to end on December 9, 2012
for tickets, call 773 753 4472 or visit Court

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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