James Joyce's The Dead Lives on Broadway

A Review of James Joyce The Dead

Review by Linda Winer
New York Newsday, 12 January 2000

JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD. Book and lyrics by director Richard Nelson, music and lyrics by Shaun Davey. With Christopher Walken, Blair Brown, Sally Ann Howes, Stephen Spinella, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, John Kelly, Daisy Eagan, Paddy Croft, Marni Nixon, Brian Davies, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Dashiell Eaves. Sets by David Jenkins, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lights by Jennifer Tipton, choreography by Sean Curran, music direction by Charles Prince. Belasco Theatre, 44th Street east of Broadway. Seen Friday.

AND SOMETIMES, miraculously, the system works.

When "James Joyce's The Dead" had its much-anticipated premiere at Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons last October, the intimate play-with- music was always peculiar and often beguiling. But the chamber musical - adapted from the same 1914 Joyce story used in 1987 for John Huston's elegiac final film-seemed not to have quite come together after the original director was replaced late in the development by author Richard Nelson.

Contrary to everything we expect from the commercial theater, this fragile and unlikely "Dead" lived on to open last night at Broadway's Belasco Theatre. What needed fixing has been fixed in all good and loving ways the special project demanded and deserved. It is still an odd bird, certainly, but an enchanting one emotionally delicate yet harrowing, refined yet gutsy, a strange and wonderful snapshot from the turn of the last century that, for all the muted colors and corsets, kills us softly with its audacity.

The finished production still has its luxurious cast with awesome cross-generational credentials. David Jenkins' gaslight sets for the four brief domestic scenes have been opened up to fill the larger stage, yet, somehow, the action feels closer and more vital than it seemed in the original tiny space. Everyone is making more of the lines and fleshing out relationships without distorting the details or spoiling the idea that we're watching a Dublin Christmas through the window of someone's beloved home.

Christopher Walken still croaks more than he sings as Gabriel Conroy, narrator and a regular at the annual holiday musicale hosted by his aging maiden aunts, played with wistful charm by Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon. Walken, who always plays on the jazz-rhythms of attitude anachronism, is enormously touching in his emotional nakedness. Blair Brown, whose career has taken a powerful turn from dramas to musicals, continues to crawl into the skin of Walken's wife, a deceptively straightforward woman with secrets.

Stephen Spinella is crushingly sweet, and almost unrecognizable, as the drunken aging sprite of a son of the expertly disappointed Paddy Croft. Emily Skinner's Irish militancy is even more unsettling to Walken's compliancy now, and downtown star John Kelly is even more startling as the visiting tenor with the stratospheric vocal and emotional range.

The party guests still have that poignant awkward quality of amateur performers without losing the virtuosity necessary for Broadway. Shaun Davey, the Irish composer best known here for his movie music for "Waking Ned Devine," has written folk-tinged songs and anthems that suggest another time without sounding like anyone else's music. The lyrics, which Nelson and Davey put together from Joyce and Irish poems from the last two centuries, include a raucous reminder to "wake the dead" because "they slept long enough and they will soon be asleep again." This may not be a sly comment on the conventional state of the Broadway musical, but we prefer to assume that it is.