Open Fist Theatre Company is nothing if not versatile. Following The Idiot Box, its 
clever dark comedy about reality intruding on sitcom perfect lives, and The 
Room, a fascinating look back at American history and politics in the 1930s, 
Open Fist now presents a musical, or more aptly put, a play with music, James 
Joyce’s The Dead.

The Dead played briefly on Broadway in 2000. After its three-month New York 
run, The Dead was presented at the Ahmanson with most of its original cast 
intact, taking over the slot of a canceled Finian’s Rainbow revival which itself 
had taken the place of an as yet unproduced world premiere musical.  Thus, 
Ahmanson subscribers, of which I was one, ended up seeing something very 
different from what we had been expecting, and something very different from 
anything we’d seen at the Ahmanson before.

I was absolutely enchanted by The Dead the first time I saw it, as much as 
anything because of the stellar cast, which included Faith Prince, Stephen 
Bogardus, Stephen Spinella, Sally Anne Howes, and Marni Nixon. Open Fist’s 
production lacks the star power (and the Broadway budget) of the show that 
played the Ahmanson, and perhaps for that reason I was less captivated the 
second time around, yet The Dead remains a lovely and unique piece of musical 

The plot, what little there is of it, revolves around friends and family gathered at 
the home of three spinsters in 1904 Ireland, a time before radio and later TV 
radically changed the way people entertained themselves at home. So, what 
exactly did these people do to stay entertained? They sang. Thus, for the first 
fifty minutes or so of its ninety minute running time, and aside from brief narration 
and dialog, The Dead is primarily made up of eight songs in the Irish folk tradition, 
some performed individually, others in various groupings.  Because there is little 
“happening” on stage, and with more than a dozen characters to keep sorted, 
the first half of The Dead may be less than compelling for some audience 

Then, like a breath of Broadway magic, comes “Naughty Girls,” a rousing and 
infectious anthem begun by Aunts Julia and Kate and ultimately joined in by the 
entire cast, and the show takes flight.  “Naughty Girls” is followed by the even 
more stirring “Wake the Dead,” with the entire cast dancing and stomping 
loudly and energetically enough to indeed wake the dead.

Things soon calm down considerably as the scene changes, and in a quiet and 
lyrical passage, one of the family members joins the titular ranks of the no longer 
living.  And finally, in the bedroom of two of the characters, we witness a pivotal 
moment in their marriage as the wife sings about, and then breaks down 
because of, the death of her first love while he was still a teenager.

Though The Dead is billed as a “Tony Award Winning Musical,” those expecting a 
“Broadway Show” may be in for a letdown. Though The Dead may well end up 
wining these theatergoers over, Les Miz, Phantom, or even say The Light In The 
Piazza it’s not. 

What The Dead does have going for it are Shaun Davey’s lovely melodies, actors 
who are for the most part up to the show’s vocal demands, and some truly 
beautiful design elements. (The book is by Richard Nelson, and song lyrics were 
“conceived and adapted” from Joyce’s words by Nelson and Davey.)

Under Charles Otte’s direction, with dialect coaching by Sandi Massie, the cast 
truly do look and sound like folk from James Joyce’s Ireland of a century ago. 
Kudos to Rob Nagle, Jacque Lynn Colton, Judith Scarpone, Teresa Willis, Kendra 
Chell, Bruce Dickenson, Nicola Hersh, Sarah Buster, Arthur Hanket, Jake Wesley 
Stewart, Amy Tzagournis, Martha Demson, Michael Franco, and Zoe Hanket for 
their fine work here.

Musical director Dean Mora, joined onstage by fellow musicians Otte and 
Jennifer Richardson, provides impeccable accompaniment to the songs. 
Christine Sang created the Irish dances, most notably the foot-stomping of 
“Wake The Dead.” Kis Knekt’s set, Christina Wright’s costumes, Otte’s and Teresa 
Enroth’s lighting, Peter Carstedt’s sound design, and Susan Maust’s wigs and 
hair all come together to create a delicate and nostalgic picture. 

Though not for all audiences, James Joyce’s The Dead is nonetheless worthy of a 
look-see by theatergoers in search of more poetic musical fare.

The NEW Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 9, 2008

Comments are closed.