James Joyce's classic short story "The Dead" takes place at the annual holiday party given by a pair of maiden aunts and their niece, all of whom are music teachers. The guests and some prize students sing, a meal is served, a toast is made, and the hostesses are roundly praised.
It's a gracious, genteel event on a snowy Dublin evening at the turn of the 20th century, and it's indicative of how beautifully the musical, "James Joyce's The Dead," captures the spirit of the occasion that you feel like one of the guests, even in the Kennedy Center's spacious Eisenhower Theater.
With buoyant music by Irish composer Shaun Davey and a Tony Award-winning book by Richard Nelson, who also directed the production, "The Dead" is essentially a chamber musical, and that's one of the loveliest things about it. The show's creators have honored the exquisite subtlety of Joyce's story.
The aunts' favorite nephew, Gabriel, serves as the musical's narrator. In his opening and closing narrations, Gabriel says, "The world, I've come to think is like the surface of a frozen lake. ...We try to keep our balance and not to fall. One day there's a crack, and so we learn that underneath us - is an unimaginable depth."
For Gabriel, the crack opens at the party given by Aunts Julia and Kate. Played with delicacy and insight by Stephen Bogardus, Gabriel is a very contained, proper gentleman. Although he's a generous friend, devoted nephew and loving husband, he's not demonstrative or passionate, and he has trouble seeing beyond his own horizons. At the party, his considerably more effusive wife, Gretta, affably and warmly portrayed by Faith Prince, sings a song Gabriel has never heard before.
The song awakens his ardor, although as he learns later that night, Gretta has not sung it to him. Instead, her memory of a long-lost love has been stirred by a young man at the party. Discovering that his wife isn't merely a part of his life, but a distinct human being with memories and feelings all her own, is a disquieting revelation to Gabriel. That revelation is the core of Joyce's story.
Nelson has changed some details - most glaringly by portraying Aunt Julia's fate on stage. But even this alteration is largely forgivable, since he and Davey have so faithfully captured the story's flavor.
They accomplish this is by keeping the staging intimate and true to the drawing-room setting. Almost without exception, when actors sing, they face their fellow guests - not the audience. And when they dance (to Sean Curran's exuberant choreography) they do so out of spontaneous pleasure; the joy that erupts in "Naughty Girls" and "Wake the Dead" is a Joycean epiphany in itself.
As Kate and Julia, Marni Nixon and Alice Cannon are so charming, it's easy to understand why so many of their students, and various other hangers-on - alcoholic Freddy Malins (Sean Cullen), his sour mother (Paddy Croft) and relentlessly patriotic Molly Ivers (Angela Christian) - feel like family in their modest home.
Like Gabriel's comment comparing the world to a frozen lake, Nelson and Davey's musical not only re-creates the glistening surface of Joyce's story, it plumbs the depths below it. It's an achievement as sparkling and fragile as the finest Irish crystal.
`James Joyce's The Dead'
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Through Nov. 12