By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Indeed, Scene 1’s gathering of the clan is a monument to the art of understatement. With the muted hues of Jane Greenwood’s costumes of linen and lace, and of Jennifer Tipton’s lights upon David Jenkins’ ornate drawing-room set, the effect is that of peeking in on a party in progress. Entire songs are sung with the singers’ backs to the audience, which, in musical theater, is almost revolutionary. The sundry groupings in each stage picture form tableaus as perfectly balanced visually as the aural cadences of overlapping dialogues, speeches and silences.
Then there’s Davey’s original Celtic music (composed in a turn-of-the-century style) — a cellist and violinist are stationed stage left — which, given the hostesses’ musical profession, fits right in. Each guest is called upon to sing, transforming the play not so much into a musical as a play with music, with quadrilles and daisy-chains (choreographed by Seán Curran), an atmosphere so enchanting you hope it will never fade. For perhaps half an hour, it appears that Nelson and Davey have succeeded in turning Joyce’s words into a stage adaptation of pristine integrity and indescribable beauty.
Freddy Malins’ intoxicated arrival is the first harbinger of trouble. Despite Spinella’s dynamic, twitch-filled lunacy, it’s clear that director Nelson is guiding this carriage down a path of Dickensian sweetness and caricature. Joyce has hothead Molly Ivors storm out before dining, following some political friction with Gabriel. Nelson, instead, whitewashes the debate as a petty squabble, allowing Molly to stay for dinner. And so are deleted various expressions of Joyce’s bitterness, which, stirred in with the sweet, create the rich taste of his irony.
Where Joyce has Gabriel describe his trio of aunts as “ignorant,” Nelson depicts them as the “three graces” — the embodiment of human perfection, and nothing but. Which is why Julia’s death scene is cloying to the point of self-parody.
This shift in tone turns even more excruciating in the hotel-scene finale, wherein the creators not only set Joyce’s words to music, they embellish upon them, in lyrics crooned by Bogardus and company with understandable trepidation. Snow was falling not only on the Shannon waves and barren thorns, as Joyce noted, but also, apparently, on Aunt Julia, her dog Spot, her kitchen utensils, and so many other places I changed channels. Snow could also be seen falling, little electronic twinkles against a black backdrop, by which time they might just as effectively have dumped sacks of flour over the audience. The mood was that thick.
Poor Gabriel’s epiphany gets buried in all this white emotion. The slender, thin-haired Bogardus has a mild-mannered, bookish presence that summons a certain degree of empathy, particularly as the carriage he’s driving loses its wheels, one by one, leaving him standing amid a pair of broken axles, a cracked frame and some shattered glass.JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD | Directed by RICHARD NELSON, music by SHAUN DAVEY, book and lyrics adapted and conceived by NELSON and DAVEY | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through September 3