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March 5 2009 12:00 AM

Riverwalk Theatre offers multi-layered celebration of life

While it may have a foreboding title, “James Joyce’s The Dead,” now showing at Riverwalk Theatre, is a lively, nuanced blend of humor and tears.

At its simplest, “The Dead” offers the scenes of a quintessential family holiday party; at its most complex, a layered character study of Irish social issues at the turn of the last century.

With book by Richard Nelson and music by Shaun Davey, this musical adaptation of Joyce’s story doesn’t follow conventional musical standards, hence the extended title, as opposed to “The Dead … The Musical.” Unlike today’s Broadway clichs, the music of “The Dead” is incorporated almost entirely within the confines of reality. The onstage musicians and actors perfectly entwine Davey’s traditional-sounding Irish songs and dances perfectly with the private conversations, all of which weave a large tapestry of life instead of a singular thread of plot.

Mary Job directs an elite cast of local actors and featured musicians, who lend their characters real-world authenticity. As the characters’ back-stories and present quarrels become more complex, Job ensures every point is understood, every line heard and every important movement seen. She also balances the emotional highs and lows of the social gathering honestly and delicately, so every mood resonates clearly.

Leading the cast is Doak Bloss in the role of Gabriel Conroy, the story’s narrator and nephew of the hosts in charge of the dinner’s toast. Gini Larson, who plays his wife, Gretta, accompanies him. Bloss and Larson have very natural chemistry and are a treat to watch.

Other party highlights at the party are Eve Davidson, as aging hostess Aunt Julia Morkan; Alec Nagy, as family drunk Freddy Malins; and Bill Henson, as Bartell D’Arcy. Davidson gives her frail character integrity and history without overacting. Nagy’s inebriated stumbling is a bit overdone, but his movements are so purposeful and funny one cannot help following his every attempt to procure more liquor. Henson excels while doing double duty as a featured actor and singer and the show’s music director.

The rest of the cast fills their roles nicely, keeping the show’s tempo brisk but without pulling the spotlight. More important, everyone can sing. Only a few voices are great on their own, but everyone carries a tune and blends wonderfully.

“The Dead” breathes more fully with the aide of its technical components. From Daniel Moore’s wigs and hairstyles to Job’s detailed period set, every visual element is accounted for. Lark Burger is responsible for designing the stunning period costumes, which look great and allow the actors full movement when jigging and stomping.

Only one song at the end seems out of place, as Larson sings about a lost love, but in this scene Larson literally makes herself weep, provoking the audience to do the same, even if it feels sentimental.

Apart from this one raw moment, the rest of “The Dead” is as densely layered as a hand-made quilt, an heirloom worth passing on to the next generation.

Photo by JD Small Studios, courtesy of Riverwalk Theatre (From left) Rick Dethlefsen, Alec Nagy and Emily Aslakson Himebaugh in “James Joyce’s The Dead.”

‘James Joyce’s The Dead’

March 1 7 p.m. Thursday 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday
Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Drive, Lansing $8-$14 (517) 482-5700

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