Under the confident steam of its original champions, producers Gregory Mosher and Arielle Tepper, “James Joyce’s The Dead” has moved to Broadway, where audiences unable to secure tickets to the sold-out run at Playwrights Horizons will be able to assess this adventurous new musical’s considerable charms. Equally well preserved, however, are its not inconsequential flaws, most prominently a dismayingly miscast Christopher Walken in the pivotal role of Gabriel Conroy, the character through whose sensitive consciousness Joyce’s story is filtered.
The Belasco is a comfortable home for the production on Broadway. The theater’s deep wood tones and decorative murals in dark colors neatly complement the musical’s softly gaslit hues (supplied by Jennifer Tipton’s delicate work). The show felt slightly cramped at Playwrights Horizons, and David Jenkins’ set has more room to breathe on the Belasco stage.
Nevertheless, surprisingly little of the musical’s captivating sense of intimacy has been lost. The quirks of staging used to emphasize the cozy, convivial mood — performers often sing with their backs to the footlights, addressing only their onstage audience — have been carefully preserved, although they still strike this viewer as self-consciously anti-theatrical. The ample talents of the veteran cast, in any case, easily invite us to overlook them.
The first two-thirds of the show takes place at a party hosted by the elderly Julia and Kate Morkan (Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon), and the assembled performers have only deepened the feeling of long acquaintance and deep affection that suffuses their interaction. The anguished nervousness of the prudish Mrs. Malins (Paddy Croft) as she awaits the arrival of her inevitably inebriated son is visibly shared by everyone in the room, as is the embarrassment when the feckless Freddy (Stephen Spinella) arrives and makes an unfortunate allusion to the choir from which Aunt Julia has recently been forced to retire.
The actors all subtly suggest the way feelings and reflections are silently telegraphed from one character to another among such a close gathering of family and friends. This transparency of emotion is later shown to be in poignant contrast to the secret sadness that Gabriel discovers his wife Gretta has harbored throughout their marriage.
Book writer and lyricist Richard Nelson is now listed as the sole director (Jack Hofsiss left the production prior to the Off Broadway opening), and he’s to be credited for beautifully judged ensemble work that nevertheless allows each of the characters to register distinctly. Some of the performances have expanded richly to fill the larger space.
Spinella’s Freddy is now an even more rumbustiously comic presence, barely able to control his quaking limbs and emotions under the influence of both high and alcoholic spirits.
Blair Brown’s Gretta Conroy has grown in radiance and quiet feeling, and her singing is more robust and assured.
Musical highlights are provided by Howes’ heart-stoppingly lovely and (intentionally) tremulous performance of “When Lovely Lady,” and her duet with Nixon’s chronically concerned Aunt Kate on the slightly naughty “Naughty Girls.” On a second hearing, the ample but subtle melodic appeal of Shaun Davey’s music strikes the ear more forcefully. (The musical’s lone out-of-register song, “Wake the Dead,” signals a still jarring shift from a strictly realistic style, in which the characters sing only when they’re performing for each other, into the more integrated musical style, when they spontaneously break into song.)
The heart of Joyce’s story, however, is the heart of Gabriel Conroy, and Walken’s performance suggests that it has been permanently chilled by the Irish winters. In Joyce’s story, a quietly raging love for his wife grows in Gabriel’s soul as the evening proceeds, only to be quenched by the terrible, sudden realization of the gulf that separates them. This interior drama cannot be easily translated to the stage, and Nelson’s combination of narration and dialogue aren’t quite up to the task, but the right actor might convey it wordlessly. Walken simply doesn’t — Gabriel’s should be the most powerfully emotional presence onstage, and instead he’s the most emotionally vacant.
Thus the story’s devastating final moments, when Gabriel is awakened to the sadness, solitude and decay of life and love, arrive on the Belasco stage only in muted form. The loss to the effectiveness of Joyce’s tale is immeasurable, even if it is only admirers of the literary masterpiece who will powerfully feel it. And only time and the box office will tell whether the subtle graces of the tale that have been more successfully captured by the show’s creators will be sufficient to attract a wide Broadway audience.