Dead Singers

This musical doesn't quite capture the depth and complexity of Joyce's celebrated short story

In the main, director Adler and his accomplished ensemble fare well. The large cast, anchored by ever-reliable Stephen G. Anthony as the uneasy Gabriel, is very strong. Sandra Ives gives a multidimensional portrait of Gabriel's troubled wife, Gretta. Kay Brady and Kimberly Daniel are poignant as the ailing, tentative Julia Morkan and her anguished sister Kate. Heath Kelts is a fine Freddie; Sheila Allen is convincing as his long-suffering mother. These and the other fine actors help create a naturalistic, tactile sense of place and culture, much as Joyce's story does. This sense of time and place is aided in no small part by the extensive music and song in the show. The entire cast sings, some perhaps with more effect than others. Anthony and Daniel are in fine voice, as are J. Douglas Blevins as Bartell D'Arcy (an opera singer) and John C. Brown as the sole character original to the play but not the story, the angelic singer Michael whose song distracts Gretta so. Rich Simone's detailed, realistic set, a symmetrical array of green curtains and wood-paneled walls, offers a refined, balanced setting to the holiday atmosphere.

Still, several problems with James Joyce's "The Dead"bear discussion, and more than one of these lie with its title -- specifically, the inclusion of the writer's name. This script is certainly based on Joyce's short story, but it does a poor job of rendering its essence to the stage. The short story focuses on Gabriel and his experience through the Christmas party and on into unspecific days after the party. It's similar to Ulyssesin tracking the details of emotions and thoughts as ordinary-yet-poignant life swirls around the central character. The effect is dreamlike, a reality that's magnified and bent by the prism of Gabriel's perspective (and those of others). But this "Dead" seems rather flat, less an emotional and sensory journey than a pretext for the various songs. The songs themselves are many but conceptually vague. Some come out of the story as characters step up to sing to entertain the other guests. But others are more "musical numbers," as suddenly Adler's natural staging is dropped for Barbara Flaten's energetic, show-bizzy choreography. The production that the authors term a "musical play" seems to oscillate between these two poles to no unifying point or effect.

Adler is adept with realistic staging, especially in the first, extended party sequence. But this story is not at heart about social realism; it's about the complex emotions and allegorical echoes underneath that social surface. This undercurrent requires some boldness and directorial invention, especially since Nelson and Davey have opted to stick to so straight an adaptation. When Adler does go in a more theatrical direction, he has a nice touch: As Gabriel is about to give a dinner-table speech, he steps away to talk to the audience while the dinner company leans forward to listen as if he were still at the table. This kind of theatricality seems necessary to get to the flavor and texture of Joyce's tale; I wish Adler had taken these impulses further.

Gabriel (Stephen Anthony) notices his wife Gretta (Sandra Ives) is distracted
Gabriel (Stephen Anthony) notices his wife Gretta (Sandra Ives) is distracted

Details

Based on the story by James Joyce, book by Richard Nelson, music by Shaun Davey, lyrics conceived and adapted by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey. Presented through January 13 by GableStage; 305-445-1119.
Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables

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Another problem is the placement of the student musicians, who not only remain on-stage throughout the performance but do so upstage center, while the eminently watchable cast is sidelined or facing upstage. Though they dominate the stage, the musicians have not been directed as characters in the play; their slack-faced lack of involvement only acts as a drag on the entire proceedings.

These weaknesses are decidedly disappointing but should be considered a measure of GableStage's potential and the rising expectations it engenders. As this company's stature grows in the community, so too are higher standards placed upon it than on other companies that dare not risk programming so daunting and so rich.

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