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A CurtainUp Review
Himself and Nora
Word me, Nora Barnacle! — James Joyce
himself and nora
Whitney Bashor & Matt Bogart (Photo by Matt Murphy)
The new Off-Broadway musical Himself and Nora scratches beneath the skin of the literary lion James Joyce and delves into his passionate relationship with Nora Barnacle, his wife and muse. Author-composer Jonathan Brielle (book, music, and lyrics) drenches the work with pop and Celtic songsā€”and salty Irish wit. Helmed by Michael Bush, you can bet your shamrocks that it will attract Joyceans and anybody who likes a love story with a Bohemian flavor.

Here's the skinny on Himself and Nora: It began its life at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego back in 2005, and in revised versions, surfaced at the James Joyce Center in Dublin in 2008 and at the Hamilton stage in Rahway in 2013. And, oh yes. It winged into the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) in 2012, gathering a flurry of favorable notices.

Having first seen Himself and Nora in that NYMF outing, I can say with certainty that it's seasoned well and, in its present iteration at the Minetta Lane Theatre, gains sturdier stage legs.

It helps to have a nodding acquaintance with Joyce's life and literary career before seeing this two-act musical. But even if you haven't read a page of his juggernaut Ulysses, not to mention his more cryptic Finnegan's Wake, you will have no problem being pulled in. Although Brielle includes intimate scenes about Joyce's struggles as a writer and his literary breakthrough in Europe (think the publication of Ulysses in Paris), Brielle is more intent on dramatizing the literary lovers Joyce and Nora and bringing their controversial relationship into clear focus.

Fortunately, the new production's transitions are tighter but the structure hasn't changed in any substantive way. It still follows the real-life love story of the iconic Joyce and the chambermaid Nora, who Joyce met on Nassau Street in Dublin on June 16th, 1904, and subsequently eloped with to Europe. There's some poetic license in book-ending the story with Joyce's untimely death. However, the key episodes of their life in exile and how Joyce would draw on Nora's down-to-earth language to create his immortal characters, are covered. That includes the famous Molly Bloom whose affirmatives are so deeply carved into our cultural memory. There's also a terrific scene in Paris with Joyce and Nora, the poet Ezra Pound, the publisher Sylvia Beach (of Shakespeare and Company fame), and the wealthy Harriet Weaver on the cusp of Ulysses publication.

While Brielle is a fine raconteur, he's better as a composer and lyricist. He once poked fun at himself in an online interview that he was "too theatrical for rock and too rock for theater." But his new musical proves that he can toss rock and theatrical into the same brew and create some robust new songs. In Act 1, there's the sensuous "Compatriots in Lust," Nora's solo "Stand Fast," and the show's signature tune "River Liffey," a glorious homage to the River LIffey that poetically catalogues the geography of the Emerald Isle. There's more to tap your feet to in Act 2, with "The Grand Himself" that raucously toasts the publication of Ulysses in Paris, "The Children of Mister Joyce" that reveals the impact of Joyce's sudden celebrity on his children, and the much darker "Twists and Turns" that spearheads Joyce's failing eyesight and the schizophrenia of his daughter Lucia.

Of course, it takes strong acting and singing to make the story and songs soar. Matt Bogart (Jersey Boys) and Whitney Bashor (Bridges of Madison County) acquit themselve well as Joyce and Nora, Bogart, who originated this role in San Diego, has polish and impressive musical chops. Bashor, is fine in her first time as Nora at the Minetta Lane. The supporting actors are also impressive. Zachary Prince does triple duty as the Priest, Franco, and Giorgio; so does s Michael McCormick ( as Da, Guido, and Ezra Pound. Lianne Marie Dobbs also demonstrates quicksilver versatility, morphing from Mother, to Sophia, to Barmaid, to the wealthy Harriet Weaver.

The creative team is big on brashness, and rightly so. Paul Tate dePoo III's set design is impressionistic, alternately evoking the purlieus of Dublin, Zurich, and Trieste. Kelli Barclay's choreography is a vibrant mixture of traditional Irish and modern dance. And Amy Clark's period costumes serve as a visual timeline and mirror for the changing fortunes of the 14 characters as well as Joyce and Nora's rise from nobodies to somebodies.

Himself and Nora is not flawless . Lucia's schizophrenia and Joyce's subsequent decision to commit her to an insane asylum is dramatized rather awkwardly. Though this is extremely sensitive emotional material is colored with the notions about mental illness in the early twentieth century, it could have been better integrated into the overall flow of the piece.

Taken as a whole, Himself and Nora contains the right meat-and-potatoes for a satisfying musical, notably a strong cast with Broadway credentials, but with no one resting on prior laurels here. Best of all, the audience is given a fresh lens to explore the legendary novelist Joyce— that would be through the often-overlooked woman who loved him so unconditionally.

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Himself and Nora
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle
Directed by Michael Bush
Cast: Matt Bogart (James Joyce), Whitney Bashor (Nora), Michael McCormick (Da, Guido, Ezra Pound), Zachary Prince (Priest, Franco, Giorgio), Lianne Marie Dobbs (Mother, Sophia, Barmaid, Harriet Weaver)
Sets: Paul Tate DePoo III
Costumes: Amy Clark
Sound: Keith Caggiono
Music Coordinator: Jim Hynes
Lighting: Jason Lyons
Choreography: Kelli Barclay
Stage Manager: CJ LaRoche
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane. Tickets: $89. Phone (800) 745-3000 or online at
Running time: 2 hours: 15 minutes with an intermission.
From 5/14/16; opening 6/6/16; closing 8/06/16.
Tuesdays @ 7pm; Wednesdays @ 2pm and 8pm; Thursdays @ 8pm; Fridays @ 8pm; Saturdays @ 2 and 8pm; Sundays @ 3pm.
Running time: 2 hours: 15 minutes with an intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 6/03/16

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