Momentary Musicals

  • At least Monk knows the challenge she faces. The puzzle of James Joyce'sThe Dead is: Did Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey have any notion of what they were doing in their attempt to turn Joyce's short story into a musical? Whatever they meant, the soggily pointless mishmash that resulted can't possibly be fulfilling their aims. As staged by Nelson in tandem with Jack Hofsiss, it trudges through the story's main events, dropping songs in as decreed by Broadway tipsterism, rather than as needed dramatically. Gabriel Conroy's old-maid aunts would not have approved-nor would they have countenanced Davey's pleasant folk-pop music in their shabby-genteel 1904 Dublin drawing room. But you know early on that Nelson cares nothing about the life Joyce portrayed when someone announces a song "based on words by the poet Michael William Balfe." Balfe wrote music, not words.

    Not that such things would bother the writers who put a huge whoop-de-do in praise of Parnell into the same maiden ladies' drawing room, where his case could never have been openly discussed. The lyric isn't about Parnell, of course; like most of the Nelson-Davey lyrics, it rambles on about nothing in particular. For a finale, they've actually attempted to transform Joyce's somber final paragraph, which begins by quoting a weather report, into a summing-up number for their narrator-hero. The sight of Christopher Walken tonelessly chanting, "Snow will be gen-er-al all over Ireland," the expression on his face betraying a desperate wish to be anywhere other than Dublin or New York, will rank high on my list of painful theatrical memories. Walken, an actor as fascinating as he is (often) maddening, is notoriously lax about voice production; it was brave of him to take on the lead in a musical, but I've never seen him more disconnected from a role.

    There isn't much to rouse him, since the desultory staging is a thorough waste of the starry cast. In the long first scene, the listening guests are seated upstage and to the side, so the singers have their backs to us at least half the time. Everyone seems ill at ease and off focus; the only person to make a moment strike the heart is Sally Ann Howes as Aunt Julia. Even John Kelly is made to look and sound awkward, burdened with one of the team's worst ideas: Instead of the simple folk song that brings back Gretta's memories, he sings its lyric in Italian, set as Davey's notion of an aria. Like most of the authors' inventions, the device vitiates Joyce's work while hindering rather than helping its transformation into a theater piece. The logical conclusion is that their intent was to ruin something good; they must be English.


    Sail Away
    By NoŽl Coward
    Weill Recital Hall
    57th Street and Seventh Avenue, 247-7800

    Magic Frequencies
    By Meredith Monk
    Joyce Theatre (closed)

    James Joyce's The Dead
    By Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey
    Playwrights Horizons
    416 West 42nd Street, 279-4200

    Saturday Night Fever
    By Nan Knighton and others
    Minskoff Theatre
    200 West 45th Street, 307-4100

    The perpetrators of Saturday Night Fever, in contrast, had a simple, honest motive: They wanted to recycle an old property one of them owned and make some more money off it. It's not their fault that they're stupid, tasteless, and unimaginative; people who think only in money terms usually are. So they took a movie that lives on its sense of reality and made a nice vapid fantasy of it; this version of Bay Ridge was shot on dislocation. Ironically, without the reality for contrast, the disco scenes have no punch, not that Arlene Phillips knows any more about disco choreography than she does about directing actors. Suzy Bensinger's costumes evoke the past suitably, and James Carpinello's shirtless body is something to admire in the present, but the rest is pure hypnopodia: You feel these pointless people are dancing in your sleep.

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