From Joyce to Orpheus, Music to the Ears

A Review of James Joyce The Dead

Review by David Patrick Stearns
USA Today, October 28, 1999.

As Saturday Night Fever groans and creaks its way through nightly outings under the mistaken notion that what's great on film will be better on Broadway, a blinding flash of truth strikes for the 80th time in the 1990s: There must be better ideas for musicals.

Luckily, there are. Lots of them at the moment - just a few blocks away at off-Broadway theaters and a short train ride away in Philadelphia. And some boast all-star casts.

Though James Joyce might seem too literary for singing and dancing, an adaptation of his short story The Dead, which opened Thursday at Playwright's Horizons, is stuffed with music - often successfully - and has a cast that includes Christopher Walken, Blair Brown, Stephen Spinella, Sally Anne Howe and Marni Nixon.

Joyce's cross-section of the turn-of-the-century Irish middle class attending an annual dance party - including a complacent bourgeois couple, men struggling with alcoholism and a radical Irish nationalist - becomes an occasion for singing parlor music and folk songs. So The Dead is more a play with music than a musical in the strict sense of the word. But in the better moments, the songs deepen the characters or have further plot implications, even if theatricalizing Joyce means losing details - some unsavory - that brought you so clearly into that world.

It could even be argued that Richard Nelson's adaptation fundamentally changes Joyce. Songs such as Wake the Dead suggest far more spirit and inner life than the original's more repressed creatures possessed. Most of the rest of Shaun Davey's score isn't so lively, and is all too faithful to the musically mundane tradition of century-old parlor songs. It also would be helpful if Walken's portrayal of the central character, Gabriel Conroy, didn't seem so half-hearted, particularly next to the sparkling Brown, who plays his wife. Elsewhere, the show hardly takes advantage of the rest of its illustrious cast.

Similarly, Shockheaded Peter, a British import at the New Victory Theatre through Sunday prior to a U.S. tour, uses music more as a plot adjunct in a series of episodes based on Heinrich Hoffmann's 1847 book Struwwelpeter, written to frighten children into being good by showing the price of bad behavior. The culprit is often a strange, difficult, big-haired child who may have been David Lynch's inspiration in the cult film Eraserhead.

Translated to the stage, it's a beguiling parade of grotesque, grimy, quasi-Victorian humanoids and highly abusable puppets, with musical interludes by the Tiger Lillies, a group employing amiable, folksy instruments - accordion, for one - in twisted, creepy ways. Director Phelim McDermott makes breathtakingly witty use of cartoonish props, all conspiring to make this one of the hotter, more fashionable theater tickets in New York. But like so many Lynch movies, the freak-show element is so strong, the show makes little emotional impression.

There's no lack of impact, however, in Running Man, a Pulitzer Prize finalist which ran briefly in New York last season . Now, this jazz opera about a bright young black man who comes to ruin from drug addiction is at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater through Nov. 7, and is all that it's cracked up to be. Told in an extended flashback after the man's death, this sadly familiar story is more poignant than ever mostly thanks to Diedre Murray's daring, eclectic wall-to-wall score, which draws from the symphonic jazz of Duke Ellington and the emotionally charged vocal writing of the Verdi Requiem. With deft use of minimal but atmospheric sets (including ramps leading to the land of the dead), director Diane Paulus assures it's also good theater.

The musical-theater cutting edge might lie in any number of those directions. But a Danish theater group called Hotel Pro Forma - seen last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music - dramatically broadens the possibilities with Operation: Orfeo.

The plot of the ancient myth of Orpheus, who searches for wife Eurydice in the underworld, is only vaguely implied. You're presented with a series of stunningly lighted stage pictures formed by 12 robed vocalists who arrange themselves in various geometric configurations while singing John Cage's meditative, unaccompanied Hymns and Variations. Some critics dismissed it as contentless; I came away feeling as though I'd had a week's vacation. Pray that Hotel Pro Forma comes back.

Postscript: The title role of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the popular, edgy off-Broadway musical about an East German rock star with a botched sex change, has become so fashionable as to be coveted by stars. Though the role is traditionally played by a man in drag, Ally Sheedy comes at it from the opposite direction. Her performance is conceptually solid, projecting a fun, Germanic irritability, and her singing in the hard-rock score is as good as it needs to be. But the show is full of witless, rude jokes that she's unable to disguise as anything else. It also requires the star to be a storyteller, since the show is a series of between-song anecdotes. Sheedy gives them a brooding gravity that elongates matters so much, you fear your clothes will be out of style by the time she gets to the next song. With luck, she'll get better.