- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2000

''James Joyce's 'The Dead' " is more of a mood piece than a conventional musical.

Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey's musical adaptation of Joyce's short story captures all its colorations — at times it is hushed and reverent, at others vibrant and unbridled.

Yet it seizes Joyce's mellifluous prose in an unorthodox fashion for the musical stage: The actors often have their backs to the audience; indeed, for the whole evening they are performing for one another rather than us. The overall effect is of the audience rubbing away the fog on a frosted window to watch the goings-on at a festive holiday party in turn-of-the-century Dublin.

The hostesses are a trio of revered music teachers: spinster aunts Julia (Alice Cannon) and Kate (Marni Nixon) Morkan and their niece, Mary Jane (Stephanie J. Block). Their annual gathering is much-anticipated, not just for the groaning sideboard of food and drink, but for the promise of abundant song, dance and music. In this age of sitting passively and being entertained by videos and the Internet, it is wondrous to witness once again the simple power of singing for your supper.

Although the Morkans have hired musicians and singers — notably Michael (Branson Sean Wardell), a student of Mary Jane's who will play a potent role in the proceedings later — the guests are expected to each take a turn at center stage. They are more than up to the task. The rhythmic revelers include Mr. Browne (Shay Duffin); the sweet and booze-addled Freddy Malins (Sean Cullen) and his stern mother, Mrs. Malins (Paddy Croft); the fiery Irish nationalist Miss Molly Ivors (Angela Christian); and Bartell D'Arcy (John Kelly), an opera singer.

Family members also are present — Gabriel Conroy (Stephen Bogardus), a gentle and subtly distanced man who also serves as the narrator, and his wife, Gretta (Faith Prince). Gretta is warmly welcomed into the gathering, but she isn't completely accepted by the family. She serves as a robust contrast to the oh-so-proper ladies, with her gorgeous red hair piled atop her head; her low-cut, brick-red brocade dress; and the matching shoes that peek from beneath her skirts.

Gretta tosses her fine head and decides to have a grand time at the party and also afterward, since she and her husband are staying the night at a hotel without their children.

For most of the musical, we witness the goings-on at the party as they unfold. They consist mainly of Mary Jane at the piano while everyone performs Mr. Davey's lovely score. The music, which combines Irish folk music traditions with 18th- and 19th-century Irish poetry and the work of Thomas Moore, ranges from the melancholy "Killarney's Lakes" and "Adieu to Ballyshannon" to the blood-roiling "Parnell's Plight." The last number is accompanied by much thunderous stomping and dancing.

Freddy slightly scandalizes the night by woozily performing "Three Jolly Pigeons," a rousing pub song, a gesture he echoes later when the after-dinner drinks kick in and he entreats everyone to whoop it up to the tune of "Wake the Dead."

The party moves from the drawing room to Aunt Julia's bedroom, as she sits weakly propped up in bed as the guests pay tribute to her in the harmonic "Queen of Our Hearts" and "D'Arcy's Aria," which is soulfully but disappointingly sung by Mr. Kelly.

Miss Prince's great moment comes with Gretta's solo, the haunting, stirring "Goldenhair," a song from her youth that she sings with such passion and grace that Gabriel is moved and humbled by the thought that she is singing about him. As he discovers later, Gretta's transcendent singing was prompted by seeing the music student Michael, who reminded her of a long-ago love — a boy with huge dark eyes who died after standing in the rain for hours just to see her.

The frivolity of the party takes on deeper glints in two magical interludes. In the first, Aunt Julia is joined by the ghost of her young self for a private, quietly wrenching duet. And, as the snow falls all over Ireland, Gretta and Gabriel prepare for bed in their hotel room. He is faced with his wife sobbing on the bed as he realizes that the woman he loves and who bore his children is ultimately someone he never fully will know — a woman with a passion in her past he will never touch.

"Dead" offers a depth of acting and character not usually seen in a musical. Miss Prince is especially moving as the high-spirited, complex Gretta, and Mr. Bogardus as the fine-souled, delicately hurt Gabriel. The spinster aunts also are lovely, with Miss Cannon angelic and incandescent as Julia and Miss Nixon in gorgeous voice as the more troubled and sensitive Aunt Kate.

"James Joyce's 'The Dead' " is an unusual, but unexpectedly heartfelt musical that is more of a parlor piece than a glitz-intense Broadway blockbuster.WHAT: "James Joyce's 'The Dead' "WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 12WHERE: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWTICKETS: $20 to $79PHONE: 202/467-4600

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