James Joyce is a great character, and in Matt Bogart, the producers of “Himself and Nora” have found the ideal actor to play him. Joyce was a hell-raising, hard-drinking, sexually uninhibited wild man, and Bogart layers these elements with devil-may-care charisma. What’s more, this world-premiere production boasts Kate Shindle, whose Nora is strong and exciting enough to justify Joyce’s lifelong passion. Between the two of them, sparks fly even when the story takes conventional turns and tuneful musical numbers lose potential from cautious staging.
The intriguing romantic blend of a sexy chambermaid and the esoteric author who wrote “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses” lends vibrancy to their early, heavily sensual encounters. Shindle’s Nora is a saucy, fiercely independent female for her time (1884-1951) who demands to be treated as an equal.
Since Bogart and Shindle have splendid voices, such songs as “Kiss” and the cleverly named “Compatriots in Lust” sound vigorous and delightful. They override the fact that few of the numbers end conclusively, as though applause would be too vulgar a goal. It’s admirable to try to weave songs densely into dialogue so they don’t bulge and distort the story, but many of Jonathan Brielle’s melodies could be showstoppers if given more breathing space. “River Liffey” and “Let’s Have a Drink” demonstrate Bogart’s nimble dancing and would benefit from additional expansion and choreography.
Joyce’s conflict with a priest-ridden Ireland, and one priest in particular (David Edwards), provides an interesting, sustained conflict. The disapproving Dublin clergyman, who warns, “Kneel or you will suffer an eternity in hell,” notes Joyce’s later poverty with satisfaction (“Watch where love goes when there’s no money”). Joyce, reduced to teaching and steadily more frustrated by 50 rejections from publishers, finds escape in drinking.
His work, regarded by many as obscene, is pronounced “literature of the latrine,” and his domestic problems increase when Nora expresses resentment at his refusal to marry her, even after 27 years and the raising of two children. These events are engrossing, although some issues are skated over and need a more penetrating treatment.
An effort to be upbeat means the schizophrenia of Joyce’s daughter and his son’s drinking are too summarily handled. Joyce’s drinking also is tidy and prettified. Bogart has the power to be a roaring, Eugene O’Neill-type drunk and the strength to take this compulsion to soaring heights.
Where Sheila Walsh’s book excels is in her understanding of writers. Hollywood and Broadway usually turn literary personalities and composers into hollow hacks who grind out masterpieces on demand. Walsh successfully illuminates the devouring drive behind every artist and doesn’t flinch from showing the selfishness and cruelty that spew out when their creative processes are interrupted. This consuming involvement makes Joyce’s failing eyesight and 10 operations all the more moving and tragic.
Co-directors Joseph Hardy (Tony winner for “Child’s Play”) and Jeff Calhoun (helmer of Broadway’s “Big River”) take the cliche of the woman who wants equality and shape her into a forceful yet feminine figure. Shindle is earthy and tough, and we always feel she’s behind her man. Blessedly devoid of identity crises or a need to make speeches, her Nora knows damn well who she is.
When Joyce, in a fit of despair, screams at her, “Once a harlot, always a harlot,” one cringes but also feels relief that this woman can wipe up the floor with a man who denigrates her, rather than quivering with pathetic humiliation.
She needs to be a worthy antagonist because Joyce — for all his sexually liberated attitudes — still recoils at the idea of having a woman as his publisher, and Nora’s big number, when she sings, “What would I be without a man — Lucky!” bursts through more explosively than any other song in the score.
Tobin Ost’s costumes have the proper elegance, and his set — a two-story stone structure with huge gothic windows, balcony and iron green stairway — works well for all of the musical’s settings: Dublin, Trieste, Paris and Zurich. Ost’s revolving stage is used to striking effect during Joyce’s birth and in moments of desperation.
Jon Weston’s sound does justice to composer Brielle’s orchestrations and all the Bogart-Shindle renditions, although for maximum impact the vocals could be amplified.
Supporting cast (David Edwards, Frank Mastrone and Kathy Santen) is expert but small, and the production looks underpopulated, negotiating a line between a modest musical and a Broadway show. There’s enough meaty material here for a Great White Way hit, if all the elements are tweaked and juggled, because Joyce — though widely regarded as a brilliant “unread” writer — is a richly accessible character who sings with every word and gesture.