James Joyce's The Dead

Belasco Theater, NY - January 2000

Review by John Kenrick

The critics had some extravagant things to say about this one, hailing it as a major theatrical event. (Silly me – I still fall for that old line.) Not that I needed much encouragement to see any show that boasted such a musical theatre dream cast. As it turned out, most of the cast did not disappoint, but the show they were trying to breathe life into was another matter.

The Dead is one of Joyce's best known short stories. Sometime around 1900, two spinster sisters throw a Christmas party in their Dublin flat. Since the three ladies are music teachers, the party becomes an impromptu concert. By evening's end, one of the sisters faces her death, and their favorite nephew realizes his wife is haunted by memories of a boy show loved in her youth.

As the sisters, Sally Ann Howes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Marni Nixon (who dubbed the leads in King & I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady) have far too little to sing but dazzle at every turn. Veteran character actress Paddy Croft (Prime of Miss Jean Brody) deftly plays the righteous Mrs. Malins, who is both infuriated and charmed by her tipsy son Stephen Spinella (Angels In America, Love Valor Compassion). Spinella proves himself an irresistible musical comedian – the most exciting moment in the show comes when he leads the ensemble in the foot-stomping "Wake the Dead." I hope this is not his last musical – what a delight!

As the narrator, Christopher Walken under-acts, a rare accomplishment for him. However, he also under-sings, and is usually so off-key that he's in Connecticut. How sad that this show's box-office star is also its weakest link. Blair Brown does a smashing job as his wife, a woman haunted by memories of a lost love.

Side Show sisters Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley share no songs, but each gets the chance to remind us what exciting performers they are. Secret Garden's Daisy Eagan shares a brief duet with Howes – not much, but it is delightful to see what a lovely young lady she has become.

The cast also includes Dashiell Eaves (the revivals of Sound of Music and 1776), and Brooke Sunny Moriber (Les Miz and Parade). It was a special pleasure to see Brian Davies, who created the roles of Rolf (The Sound of Music) and Hero (Forum) and is just returning to the theatre after a long hiatus.

The score by composer Shaun Davey and playwright Richard Nelson accurately captures the sound of late-19th Century Irish popular music. However, these pastiches do not amount to a cohesive score, and the bizarre staging has most of performers turn their backs on the audience to entertain the rest of the cast. Seeing as the audience is paying good money to see The Dead, it is insulting as well as inept to have us spend most of the songs watching the performer's backsides.

It was no wonder that so many people walked out midway through the performance I attended – this despite the fact that the show is only 100 minutes long. Even I found my eyelids getting painfully heavy at several points. A director with solid musical experience would have made a massive difference here. Jane Greenwood's costumes are handsome, but the David Jenkins set is so minimal that it hardly matters. The script tries to accentuate the brighter aspects of this bittersweet tale, but the effort is half-hearted, as if Mr. Nelson knows that he is tampering with Joyce's original intentions and is somewhat embarrassed.

Final verdict: go for the cast, not the show.

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