By Suzi Steffen
Patriotic Irish music, beautiful ballads, a member of the Glee cast and a collaboration with the School of Music and Dance – that’s The Dead, opening Friday at the University of Oregon’s Robinson Theatre.
The musical, directed in Eugene by the Department of Theatre’s Michael Malek Najjar, played off and on Broadway in 1999 and 2000. It was produced in D.C. and Los Angeles in 2000 as well, and Najjar happened to see it at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.
“When I got the chance to pitch a musical,” he said in an interview earlier this week, “I thought, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we explore the darker emotions beneath the characters’ lives?'”
Those “darker emotions” lie beneath a Christmastime party – or rather an Epiphany party, the holiday that marks the end of the Christmas season, in the early 20th century in Dublin.
With a Tony Award-winning book by Richard Nelson and Tony-nominated score by Shaun Davey and Nelson, the musical tries to turn what’s been called “the best short story in the English language” into an evening of both fun and emotional intensity.
“There’s a lot of fun drinking songs, patriotic anthems, beautiful ballads, heartfelt emotions – we’ll take the time to do that,” Najjar said. But he added that the version he saw in Los Angeles was so beautiful and mannered that it almost entirely missed the intensity of the main character’s moment of revelation – the famous Joycean epiphany.
“If we’re doing something vastly different, it’s exploring that depth,” Najjar said.
One challenge for those directing musicals at the University Theatre is that the Department of Theatre Arts is separate from – even in a different major academic division of the UO than – music and dance.
“I felt like John Kerry doing shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth across campus to the School of Music and Dance,” Najjar said, laughing. He asked dance professor Walter Kennedy to be the choreographer and trumpet professor Brian McWhorter to be the musical director, and he also snagged the talents of singer and former UO prof Laura Wayte as vocal director.
The story’s – and one of the musical’s – protagonist, Gabriel, is played by Alex Mentzel. Mentzel’s been in and out of Hollywood for years, including a stint on Glee and appearances in Grimm, and he’s also experienced with the Eugene and UO operas (here’s a nice Daily Emerald profile from a year and a half ago).
“Alex sings like a bird,” Najjar said. “He’s one of those guys who can do all three things – sing, dance, and act.”
His wife, Gretta – the woman who occasions Gabriel’s sudden realization that he doesn’t know everything about the people closest to him – is played by Kelsey Tidball, a UO journalism major who has often performed in University Theatre productions. “When she’s on stage and singing, her voice is so pure,” Najjar said, “the room just brightens up. You don’t even need to mic her.”
Those two join a large and what Najjar called “a wonderful” cast, one with many roles for women – a rarity in both plays and musicals that is at odds with most theater departments across the country.
Najjar says he and his designers (Katie Dumolt is the set designer; costumes are by Jeannette deJong) were inspired by the time period in which the story is set.
Though the original short story was set in 1904, this version is set in 1913, just before World War I and the Easter Uprising, to get a sense of a world on the very tipping point of great change, both political and personal. “I wanted to really capture that precipice,” Najjar said. But they also needed to capture Gabriel’s move from expansive joy to a kind of alarmed, resigned dread at a world that is changing beneath his feet.
Thus the look moves from a softer Impressionist-influenced look to something more Expressionist and what Najjar called stark. One of the older women throwing the party at the beginning of the musical is dying; this is likely the last time the friends and family will gather for the party. War is coming. Gabriel has questions about how Gretta feels about him, and how he feels about her. And, of course, snow is falling across Ireland.
“In some ways, the ending is very bleak,” Najjar said, “but in others, it’s very hopeful.”
Tonight – Thursday, Nov. 3 – there’s a free preview at 8 pm, and then tickets are always free to UO students with IDs who get in line an hour ahead of the performance.
So at 8 pm Wednesday, Nov. 9, the cast is doing a “pick-up sing-through rehearsal” at the new Falling Sky Pub in the University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union, and then at 11 am Saturday, Nov. 12, the cast will perform some of the show at the Eugene Barnes & Noble, where staffers are also putting together a James Joyce table for patrons.
James Joyce’s The Dead
8 pm Nov. 4-5, 11-12, 18-19; 2 pm Nov. 13
Robinson Theatre, University of Oregon (parking across 11th Ave., or take the EmX to Dad’s Gates)
Tickets at the UO Ticket Office online or 9am-5pm M-F at 541-346-4363, or at the theater, one hour ahead of performances.