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The songs say it all in James Joyce musical at Court Theatre

Freddie Malins (Rob Lindley top) JuliMorkan (Mary Ernster) lead renditi“Wake Dead” Court Theater producti'James Joyce's 'The Dead.' ' | Michael

Freddie Malins (Rob Lindley, top) and Julia Morkan (Mary Ernster) lead a rendition of “Wake the Dead” in the Court Theater production of "James Joyce's 'The Dead.' " | Michael Brosilow photo

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When: Through Dec. 9

Where: Court Theatre,
5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $45-$65

Info: (773) 753-4472;


Updated: December 20, 2012 6:13AM

‘Listening.” That, according to Gabriel Conroy, the toastmaster at the Feast of Epiphany party at the center of “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead” — the fiercely moving production that opened Saturday at Court Theatre — is among the greatest gifts bestowed in the Dublin home of the musically minded Morkan sisters.

And the listening goes far beyond just tuning in to the emotions that music can often communicate far better than speech. It involves absorbing the silent pain (and joys) of others — the ache of love lost or unrequited, the awareness of failure and weakness, the acknowledgment of broken dreams, the despair over lost youth, the enduring hunger for pleasure, the power of memory and the fight against mortality.

An artful adaptation by Richard Nelson of the remarkable 1914 short story by the Irish master of the title, the show features an eclectic score by Shaun Davey and Nelson composed of traditional Irish songs, an opera aria and original music paired with both existing poetry and new lyrics. And one of the many achievements of director Charles Newell and his remarkably multitalented cast is the way it makes the audience listen with an almost palpable intensity. Equally powerful is the way Newell keeps everything floating between action and memory, this world and the next, echoing how Joyce enveloped his story in a snowstorm, creating a blanketing effect that suggests both safety and peril.

It is 1904, in the Dublin home shared by the elderly but still spirited Morkan sisters — Julia (Mary Ernster), the just-retired church choir director who is in failing health, and Jane (Anne Gunn), the stern music teacher — and their young niece, Mary Jane (the luminous Regina Leslie, a splendid violinist). The Epiphany feast has been a tradition for 30 years, with friends, relatives, music students and the occasional celebrity gathering for singing and dancing, eating and drinking. And as usual, the Morkans’ favorite nephew, Gabriel (Philip Earl Johnson, an ideal mix of the stolid and awkward), and his beautiful wife, Gretta (the delicately transcendent Susie McMonagle), are in attendance.

Newell, in league with set designer Scott Davis, suggests that one of the rooms in the Morkans’ faded Georgian-style home has been emptied to accommodate the dancing, so much of the story is played out on a thrust stage with just a few chairs and an upright piano (played by that peerless music director Doug Peck), with many of the actors doubling as superb musicians.

We listen to them all — most thrillingly Freddy Malins (Rob Lindley in a blazingly brilliant, career-defining turn as an alcoholic family friend). Squashed by his fiercely Catholic mother (Rebecca Finnegan) and by the moralistic society all around him, Freddy rages against the darkness and sets the stage afire in “Wake the Dead.” It is an explosion of the life force that will not be quickly forgotten.

There are other eruptions and epiphanies here, too (enhanced by Katie Spelman’s seamlessly integrated choreography), as when the very proper Morkan sisters delight their guests with “Naughty Girls,” or when the dying Julia (Ernster’s expressive face speaks volumes throughout) rekindles her youth in “When Lovely Lady Stoops to Folly,” or when the visiting tenor, Mr. D’Arcy (J. Michael Finley), sings a rarely heard Italian opera (from “The Drug of Love”) in honor of Julia.

The greatest epiphany, however, is the one that shatters Gabriel’s heart as he discovers that the exquisite song “Goldenhair,” sung by his wife, was triggered by memories of a boy she knew in her youth.

Rachel Klippel’s quicksilver moves as young Julia, Jim DeSelm as the shy guitarist, Suzanne Gillen as the feisty maid, Lara Filip as the fervent Irish nationalist, and Steve Tomlitz as the youthful cellist with flaming red hair all add immeasurably to this rueful celebration of life and the mysterious passage to whatever is next.

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