James Joyce’s The Dead at Court Theatre | Theater review

With a rich, ideal cast, this musical of loss and renewal hits hard.
Photograph: Michael Brosilow James Joyce's The Dead (2012) at Court Theatre
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It’s easy to think of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” collected in Dubliners, as elegiac. In the toast he gives at his aunts’ annual Epiphany party, protagonist Gabriel Conroy laments the erosion of Irish hospitality, just as his wife, Gretta, remembers a lost love and, in Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey’s powerfully quiet 1999 musicalization, Gabriel eventually mourns his aunt Julia.

Despite these sad notes, Davey and Nelson’s adaptation speaks to a reawakening of hopefulness and celebration even amid loss and changing tides. Director Charles Newell and music director Doug Peck had their first collaboration on the Chicago debut of James Joyce’s The Dead in 2003. I didn’t see that production, but I caught the show’s Broadway bow in 2000, which starred Christopher Walken, Blair Brown and Emily Skinner. I was mightily affected by that cast’s rendition of Joyce’s small, heartfelt tale. And yet, whether by virtue of my dozen intervening years of life and loss or Newell and Peck’s rich, ideal cast, The Dead hit me harder in this incarnation.

Philip Earl Johnson provides empathetic narration as Gabriel, the scholar conflicted about his place in his country and, as we learn, in his marriage, with Susie McMonagle turning in magnetic work as Gretta, rediscovering and then revealing a forgotten moment from her own past. The music, performed by the 13-member ensemble with Peck on an upstage piano, subtly transitions from Davey’s resettings of lyrics adapted from traditional Irish songs and poems—as the guests of the Misses Morkan might have prepared—to Davey and Nelson’s original numbers expressing the characters’ inner yearnings. If the rousing, rebellious “Wake the Dead,” led by Rob Lindley’s vivacious Freddy Malins, doesn’t wake something dead in yourself, see a doctor right away.

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