UO’s well-acted musical ‘The Dead’ hits sentimental note – Register Guard

Despite its name, James Joyce’s renowned 1914 story, “The Dead,” has earned a long life.

Still widely read and loved, the story was transformed into a gorgeous film by John Huston in 1987, and in 2000 a musical version by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey opened on Broadway, winning a Tony award for best book.

Now the musical is playing in a touching, well-acted production at University of Oregon’s Robinson Theatre. Director Michael Malek Najjar pays particular attention to Irish details, and the staging, aided by impressive lighting, is graceful and fresh.

The tale takes place at an annual holiday dinner hosted by elderly Julia and Kate (Samantha Lee and Dian Suhaimee), and their niece Mary Jane (Ellie Jones), all of them music teachers.

The old ladies’ nephew Gabriel (the excellent Alex Mentzel) serves as narrator and central character. Gabriel, a literary critic, is nervous and insecure, while his beautiful wife, Gretta (Kelsey Tidball), is warm and loving.

A crowd of regular guests fills the set, representing a middle-class Dublin home decorated with holly garlands. Molly Ivors (Jesse Shofner) is an opinionated political activist. Freddy Malins (Christian Mitchell), an amiable young drunk, constantly embarrasses his mother (Hannah Rice).

Bartell D’Arcy (Ryan Sayegh) is a professional singer, and old friend Mr. Browne (Jackson Perkins) is a Protestant. Lily the maid (Lily Smith), music student Michael (Conner Creswell), an onstage violinist (Gillian Frederick) and a ghost (Megan Schenk) also are prominent.

We suspect early on that this might be the last of such celebrations. Julia’s health is failing, the Great War is about to begin, and Ireland will soon be battling British oppression. Snow falls over all of Ireland, a rare occurrence and a symbol of change.

That’s why this gathering is precious, and the friends make the most of it with musical entertainment. One after another they sing and dance, offering up songs that seem thoroughly authentic, whether poignant or rowdy. And the dancing is Irish dancing, not Broadway dancing. It truly could be danced in a parlor.

Gabriel and Gretta sing a mesmerizing duet, “Adio to Ballyshannon,” that leaves you teary-eyed. Later Gretta sings the haunting “Goldenhair,” which is tied to a heartbreaking episode in her past that she finally reveals to her husband.

Julia, who has been deeply saddened by losing her position as church organist due to age, surprisingly sings a dance hall tune, “Naughty Girls,” with the others quickly joining in.

Most of the songs are delightful, but two or three are too long and repetitious. That’s fairly typical of current Broadway musicals.

The show as written is more sentimental than the story, which accepts the passing of time and loss of life as simply the way things are.

Musical Director Brian McWhorter leads a fine musical ensemble. Choreographer Walter Kennedy, set designer Katie Dumolt, costume designer Jeanette deJong and lighting designer Kat Matthews all excel.

Springfield playwright Dorothy Velasco reviews theater for The Register-Guard.