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A CurtainUp Review
The Dead
by Kathryn Osenlund

James Joyce's The Dead, 2000 Tony Award Best Musical Book award winner, provides the finale for the Arden Theatre's season. Elyse Sommer's 2000 review covers the original run at the Belasco on Broadway (The Review), thus the entire story will not be addressed here.

Christopher Walken is a hard act to follow, but Greg Wood does an excellent job. His character Gabriel Conroy, more an observer than a participant, is the steady rock on whom the aunts rely to perform ritual functions like checking on the drunk Freddy Malins (Anthony Lawton), carving the goose, and giving the annual toast. A well known chameleon in area theatres, Greg Wood melted into this role as he did into Greg Pierotti et al in The Laramie Project, Freddy in Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and Brick in CHTR a couple of years back at the Arden. (He also appears in the movies Sixth Sense and Signs.)

The aunts Julia and Kate, played by Lorraine Foreman and Cecelia Riddett respectively, are good-hearted souls with good voices, and these actresses do them justice. Also notable are Derin Altay (Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita) as Gretta, Whit MacLaughlin as Mr. Browne and Mary Kate McGrath as Miss Ivors, who fit their roles to a T.

Appealing set and lighting design present a picture of life in a Dublin house 100 years ago. The Christmas party with its guests is very much in the spirit of James Joyce. I wondered how they would work in the tale's ever-present snow. It was there, outside the windows and behind the scrim. Although I'd hoped to see more evidence of Joyce's ruminations on snow, the festive yet gravitas-laden scene is satisfying. Much of Joyce survives in the dialogue, but quite a bit of license is taken in this musical's book. That will happen, of course, when a story is transposed from one medium into another. I may be a stickler, but when the production is titled James Joyce's The Dead, I expect more fidelity to the tone of the original. For example, the feisty production number, "Wake the Dead," would never, never have happened in Joyce's story. Inconsistent with the sisters' manners and the spirit of the party, it entirely changes the mood. Still, it is the most rousing piece in the musical! So does that mean it's ok even if it's not Joyce? Further, I wonder if having Aunt Julia's demise highlighted on the stage was the wisest choice.

The original story, where Gabriel realizes that Julia will soon be among the dead, is stronger. She does not die within the story, and its haunting, ephemeral quality is preserved. Perhaps these criticisms raise the point that this work is best enjoyed in its original state, where there is no need to meet the demands of theatricality.

In terms of the musical numbers, most of the production songs are used as songs, ie, entertainment at the party. However, in the critical last moments, songs are used operatically. This is a huge change in the use of music, and not a particularly comfortable one, as songs now advance the plot. Gretta (Derin Altay has a lovely voice) sings the crucial part about Michael Furey, and Gabriel sings "The Living and the Dead," using words similar to Joyce's. Although it's touching, one must wonder why the composers have these pieces rather tunelessly sung instead of spoken, and why they took license with Joyce's famous ending. Why not use Joyce's actual words, which are superior? This is a solid production with a splendid set, dramatic lighting, good acting and singing, great costumes and good direction; it just could be more Joyce.

James Joyce's The Dead
Book by Richard Nelson
Music by Shaun Davey
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Cast: Nancy Boykin, Lorraine Foreman, Cecelia Riddett, Greg Wood, Derin Altay, Whit MacLaughlin, Anthony Lawton, Sally Mercer, Mary Kate McGrath, Mark Montague, Mary Beth Gorman, Sarah Gliko, Steve Pacek
Set Design: James Kronzer
Lighting Design: Daniel MacLean Wagner
Costume Design: Helen Oizhi Huang
Sound Design: Jorge Cousineau
lyrics conceived and adapted by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey Running time 1 hour 40 mins with no intermission 5/16/02- 6/16/02; opening 5/21/02

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 5/21performance
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