Courtesy of Court Theatre, (c) 2012
As James Joyce fans may recall, "The Dead" is the concluding story in his book Dubliners. This short story takes place over the course of a winter's night, semi-narrated by Gabriel, a middle-aged man who attends a festive holiday party with his wife. The dynamics become more complex as new characters interact at the gathering, and ends with a somber scene between Gabriel and his wife as he realizes how strongly she has been affected by someone from her past. Joyce's traditional political undertones aside, the story's fast turn from the camaraderie of the party to painful reminiscences makes the reader feel nearly as embarrassed as Gabriel for focusing on such short-lived frivolity.
Now that either memory has been jogged or interest piqued, forget the synopsis. The performance of "The Dead" held by Court Theater is a musical, and reads (sings) differently than the tone of Joyce's story. Many of the nuances of the original story are glossed over, and some strong liberties are taken with one character's plight, in particular. That said, the performance is charming in its own right. It's well-cast; many of the actors and actresses are not only accomplished singers, but also play at least one instrument. During one of the most boisterous points of the production, cast members played piano, cello, guitar, flute, violin, and a type of hand drum while another eight performed a well-choreographed dance on the relatively small stage. A few of the numbers appeared to be traditional Irish folksongs, while the rest were adaptations from lines of the short story itself or period poems. One of the most haunting songs of the production, "When Lovely Lady Stoops to Folly" by party host Julia, is closely followed by a flippant ode to an Irish pub, "Three Jolly Pigeons" sung jubilantly by a character who entered the party already in the bag.
While the musical may lack the poignancy of Joyce's story that leaves readers unnerved and contemplative, it makes up for this by the nature of its form. Audience members truly feel they've had the privilege of attending a turn-of-the-century rollicking dinner party that probably surpasses anything their own family has dutifully contrived. The musical is relatively young, although this is Court Theater's second time producing it in ten years, both under the artistic direction of Charles Newell. The Broadway production was nominated for five Tony Awards in 2000, and won Best Book of a Musical.
Court Theater is located just a few blocks from the Harper Center, at 5535 S Ellis Avenue (773-753-4472 or www.courttheatre.org). Tickets are $15 for students with ID, and FREE on Wednesdays and Thursdays, depending on availability. "The Dead" runs through December 9, 2012.