Understated and pensive, “The Dead” sounds like the least likely of musicals. Based on a short story in James Joyce’s “Dubliners” — and making use of every scrap of dialog and much of the narration from its source — “The Dead” sustains an Aristotelian focus on a single night, January 6, 1904, the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Magi. And indeed, talk of death permeates the discussion of the group gathered at the home of two aging sisters in Dublin as the topics shift from long dead opera singers to monks who sleep in coffins. Yet the mention of death elevates rather than depresses the mood of the piece. Death, after all, is a fact of life, and the more naturally it can be woven into the fabric of life, the more bearable the thought of it is.
Correspondingly, music is woven into the fabric of the story — and into Irish culture particularly — so turning “The Dead” into a musical makes natural sense. With book by Richard Nelson and music by Shaun Davey, “The Dead” premiered off and on Broadway in 1999 and came to Court Theatre 10 years ago under the direction of artistic director Charles Newell as the Court’s very first musical and one that would set the tone for those to follow. One year later, in 2003, Newell collaborated with musical director Doug Peck on a reprisal of “The Dead.” Newell and Peck are behind the current incarnation of the musical, which they characterize as a reinvention that replaces a traditional orchestra with actor-singers playing their own instruments (including Peck himself at the piano, his back to the audience).
Certainly, the music leavens the work, and the setting is, after all, a celebration, a gathering of the family, admirers and music students of the sisters, Julia (Mary Ernster) and Kate (Anne Gunn) Morkan and the niece who lives with them, Mary Jane (Regina Leslie, a quadruple threat with her violin skills) — “the three graces,” as the aunt’s nephew, Gabriel Conroy (Philip Earl Johnson) proclaims in a speech during their festive dinner. Gabriel serves as narrator and, with his wife Gretta (the radiant Susie McMonagle), as the focus of the story.
Suzanne Gillen plays the maid, Lily, as well as the flute. Steve Tomlitz, on cello, is Mr. Browne, and Jim DeSelm strums the guitar as he portrays a music student. Rounding out the talented cast are Lara Filip, Rachel Klippel, J. Michael Finley, Rebecca Finnegan and Rob Lindley, in a particularly lively turn as the inebriated (“screwed” in Joyce’s lingo) Freddy Malins. All in the cast sing well; more important, all have the acting chops that the material requires.
Music director Peck notes that “The Dead” is an unusual musical in that it combines diagetic songs — songs that are part of the story as these musically inclined characters gather to entertain one another — and presentational songs, where characters express emotion musically, seemingly not aware that they’re performing. In fact that might not be such a rare thing: the musical “Once” combines both. Maybe it’s that Irish penchant for song, but both “Once” and “The Dead” are practically non-musicals in the blast-out-the-songs style common to Broadway. Instead, subtlety trumps showoff singing, allowing nuances to be heard. The songs and dances in “The Dead” seem to grow organically from the story.
That story has enough uplifting material to qualify it for holiday consumption: Gabriel’s soliloquy on Irish hospitality (“generous and warm-hearted . . . in a skeptical age”); an appreciation for the healing powers of music; and most important, the genuine affection these characters demonstrate for one another.
Those spoonfuls of sweetness help us digest the darker matter, including Gabriel’s final epiphany on this Feast of the Epiphany. At the heart of “The Dead” is a wistfulness for the past and a realization that as much as we may desire human connection, we enter — and leave — this world alone.
Though Dec. 9, 2012
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago
Tickets $45 – $65 at box office or (773) 753-4472 or www.CourtTheatre.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow