James Joyce's The Dead Comes Alive in OB Opening Oct. 28

News   James Joyce's The Dead Comes Alive in OB Opening Oct. 28 The Playwrights Horizons staging of James Joyce's The Dead, the world premiere musical that merges old verse, new songs and Joyce's famous short story, finally comes alive Oct. 28, the official opening after four weeks of previews.
The company of The Dead.
The company of The Dead. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Playwrights Horizons staging of James Joyce's The Dead, the world premiere musical that merges old verse, new songs and Joyce's famous short story, finally comes alive Oct. 28, the official opening after four weeks of previews.

The Off-Broadway audience for The Dead is limited, however: Headliner Christopher Walken helped make the show a sellout before its first preview Oct. 1. It was to run to Nov. 14, but an extension to Nov. 28 will now accommodate those on a filled-up waiting list.

Ticketless theatregoers will now have to wait and see what producers Gregory Mosher and Arielle Tepper decide about the possibility of The Dead coming back to life in a commercial transfer. Horizons is producing the Off-Broadway run "by special arrangement" with the pair. Reviews are expected in the next several days.

Film actor Walken ("The Deer Hunter," "Pennies from Heaven" -- in which he danced and sang) and Brown (known for TV's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and Broadway's Cabaret and Arcadia) are Irish husband and wife, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, in the new Richard Nelson Shaun Davey adaptation. Lyricist-librettist Nelson co-directs with Jack Hofsiss. The cast remains the same for the extension.

* The story was made into a film in 1987, starring Angelica Huston and the recently deceased Donal McCann, under the direction of John Huston (the film was Huston's last).

As in the film, the theatre piece will feature singing and dancing, though Mosher was reluctant to call The Dead a musical. He told Playbill On-Line earlier in 1999 that he refers to the piece as a "play with music." A spokesman for the show said "musical play" is accurate, too: In addition to traditional, presentational Irish tunes, there are character-specific songs.

The musical's credits read: book by Richard Nelson, music by (Irish composer) Shaun Davey, lyrics conceived and adapted by Richard Nelson & Shaun Davey. Charles Prince is musical director.

An authors' program note reads: "The lyrics to some of these songs have been adapted from or inspired by a number of 18th- and 19th-century Irish poems by Oliver Goldsmith, Lady Sydney Morgan, Michael William Balfe, William Allingham and from an anonymous 19th century music hall song. Other lyrics are adapted from the Joyce or are original."

The new Joyce-inspired musical is the tale of a wife who conjures the past to reveal an aching unhappiness in her marriage to distant Gabriel. The story, drawn from Joyce's collection, "Dubliners," is set at the Christmastime party of Gabriel's music-loving aunts. A song sung at the holiday party revives wife Gretta's buried memories of a boy she loved as a teenager and who died young. As Gabriel listens to Gretta relate the tale of her early love, he realizes a man he never knew has had a grip on his wife's imagination for years. Gabriel grapples with the revelation that the dead -- even the unknown dead -- never release their hold on the living.

Joining Walken and Brown are former Side Show Tony Award nominees Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley as Mary Jane and Molly Ivors, respectively, Tony Award-winner Daisy Eagan (grown up now, since her Tony win in The Secret Garden) as Rita and Young Julia, two-time Tony-winner Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) as Freddy Malins, Tony nominee Sally Ann Howes (1963's Brigadoon revival, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang") as Aunt Julia and Nixon (famous as the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in the film "My Fair Lady") as Aunt Kate.

The 13-performer company also includes Brian Davies (the original Hero of A Funny Thing Happened...) as Mr. Browne, Paddy Croft (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and 1999's Night Must Fall) as Mrs. Malins, Dashiell Eaves (the recent revivals of 1776 and The Sound Music) as Michael, performance artist John Kelly as tenor Bartell D'Arcy and Brooke Sunny Moriber (Parade) as Lily.

Nelson's grasp of the British sensibility and subjects is well-known to followers of his work, Goodnight Children Everywhere, Some Americans Abroad and Two Shakespearean Actors. Nelson has been a director in New York and London, recently staging his own Goodnight Children Everywhere at Playwrights and Kenneth's First Play (written with Colin Chambers) for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Among Davey's songs is a number for Gretta, telling the story of her lost love. The final song of the evening maps the course of Joyce's story's famous last paragraph: "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Songs in the musical, as of the first preview, included "Killarney's Lakes," "Kate Kerney," "Parnell's Plight," "Adieu to Ballyshannon," "When Lovely Lady," "Three Jolly Pigeons," "Goldenhair," "Three Graces," "Naughty Girls," "Wake the Dead," "D'Arcy's Aria," "Queen of Our Hearts," "When Lonely Lady (reprise)," "Michael Furey," "The Living and the Dead."

Designing the Off-Broadway staging are David Jenkins (set), Jane Greenwood (costumes), Jennifer Tipton (lighting) and Scott Lehrer (sound). Choreography is by Sean Curran, a Stomp dancer since 1994 and a vet of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.