Photo by Craig Schwartz

Were James Joyce’s The Dead — now at the Ahmanson with most of the original cast (albeit somewhat rearranged) of its Tony-nominated Broadway run — a mere reduction of its source material, it would merit a stock review recommending it to people who don’t give two hoots about James Joyce, or what many regard as the most perfect 20th-century short story in the English language, the 15th and final in his collection Dubliners. But this musical is better than that, and worse. It is indeed a reduction, but not a mere reduction. It is also a morass of contradictions: brave in its restraint, and at times transcendently beautiful, both visually and in its endeavor to lead the musical theater away from its glittery, showoff posturings toward darker, more reflective tonalities. But slowly, J.J.’s The Dead turns maudlin to the point of pandering to its audience. And what it delivers at play’s end will rank as one of the year’s most embarrassing theatrical memories. More on that later.

Joyce’s “The Dead” (also rendered in John Huston’s last film, starring his daughter, Anjelica) contains two parts. The first consists of the 30th annual Christmas gathering at the home of three aging music teachers, the Morkans — aunts Julia and Kate (Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon), and their niece, Mary Jane (Donna Lynne Champlin) — in 1904 Dublin. Among the guests are Mr. Browne (Shay Duffin), almost alone in recalling the gentility, and the opera stars, of a former era; the “screwed” (inebriated) Freddy Malins (Stephen Spinella) and his perpetually ashamed mum (Patricia Kilgarriff); Bartell D’Arcy (John Kelley), a tenor whose voice is failing; young nationalist firebrand Molly Ivors (Alice Ripley); and the story’s central duo, Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta (Stephen Bogardus and Faith Prince), loosely modeled on the author and his wife, Nora.

The story begins as an assemblage of minutely detailed characterizations, of little spats both personal and political, of musical presentations, of exuberances and remorse, in a third-person-narrative tone straddling the sweet and the tart. When Gabriel spies his wife (or the woman he can’t quite recognize as his wife) on a stairwell overhearing a song crooned by D’Arcy, he observes her flushed face and finds himself stirred romantically and erotically. (For this scene, the musical gives D’Arcy’s song to Gretta, who croons it in a reverie.) Gabriel also proffers a dinner-table speech — the sentimentality of which later shames him — honoring the hostesses and an entire waning generation blessed with Irish courtesy.

In its second part, the story shifts to the hotel room where the Conroys are bedding, sans children, for the night. Gabriel’s peaked lust is tempered by Gretta’s ongoing distraction over that song — the same song, it turns out, once proffered by a teenage lover, Michael Furey, who died long before she met Gabriel. She tells her husband, for the first time, the story of how, when Michael learned she was to enter a convent, he stood outside her door in the freezing rain saying he didn’t want to live. And indeed, he got his wish, being swiftly felled by pneumonia.

For Gabriel, Gretta’s saga is a lightning bolt. He feels the absurdity of his behavior at the party, of his speech, of his life’s pointlessness (compared to that of Michael Furey), of how he has never loved — could never love — any woman the way young Michael loved his Gretta. In a harrowing epiphany, Gabriel realizes that he is not the man he thought he was. As he observes his aging wife sobbing herself to sleep, the story’s lens widens to a metaphysical scale: Gabriel becomes cognizant that one day soon he will be called to Dublin to speak again, but this time for Aunt Julia’s funeral. And so begins his journey into the dark, or, perhaps, into the light.

“His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence.
His own identity was fading out into a gray impalpable world . . .” The story ends with Joyce’s legendary description of the snow falling across all of Ireland, on bogs and “crooked crosses and headstones . . . falling faintly through the universe.”

(With its cross-pollination of the living and the dead, this has to be the story that inspired Thornton Wilder’s plays The Long Christmas Dinner and Our Town.)

James Joyce’s The Dead has Gabriel narrate
sections of the text, while subdividing the story’s two parts into four, including one completely added scene that stoops almost as low as Rent: the death of hacking Aunt Julia, in bed, center stage. Worse yet, she expires during a duet between herself and the ghost of her youth (Russell Arden Koplin) — a truly rotten idea that flies in the face of Joyce’s taut structure, the delicacy with which his images accumulate, and his dogged determination to avoid such bathos.

It would seem that to complain about any musical vitiating its source material would be to bemoan the very essence of American musical-theater history. But here, there’s a difference. The creators — Richard Nelson, who directed and wrote the book, and co-conceived the lyrics (with Shaun Davey, who wrote the music) — have expressed in numerous interviews their devotion to Joyce’s story, which suggests that either they’re bluffing or they don’t quite know what they’re talking about — though their claim certainly holds up through the show’s first, remarkable quarter.

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

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