“Himself and Nora” — Irish Literary Genius in 5-Part Harmony

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How it’s New York: A New York Music Theatre Festival award winner has a gala world premiere.
How it’s Irish: When a critic commented to James Joyce that it would take a reader an entire lifetime to read his novels, Joyce famously replied:  “It took my entire life to write them.”

FOR READERS WITH a hectic, multitasking lifestyle, here’s a concise Insta-Review of American Theater Group’s production of Himself and Nora:

Liked Everything.

Disliked Too short. Could’ve listened to the incredible singing for another three-four-ten hours.

Himself and Nora-1

Photo: Seth Walters

Or this from #Limericks_R_Us:

There was once a writer named Joyce
Whose story was given a voice
In a musical play
Exploring the way
His wife was his true muse of choice

Is leor sin! Let’s get serious.

Himself and Nora grabs your attention from the first word and holds it till the final curtain. See it and be spiritually uplifted and culturally enriched.

The brilliant new musical by Jonathan Brielle vividly (and poignantly) illustrates Thomas Mann’s definition of a Writer as “someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Throughout most of his not-quite 59 years on the planet, James Joyce grappled with a host of personal and professional obstacles — conflicts with his father and the Catholic Church, the petty provincialism of Irish social mores, his own sexual obsessions and alcohol intake, an endless series of eye operations to forestall blindness and a prideful reluctance to compromise how his work should be presented.

Opening Night: (l-r) Cole Burden, David Arthur, Michael Bush, Matt Bogart, Jessica Burrows, Lianne Marie Dobbs. Photo: Christina L. Wilson

Opening Night: (l-r) Cole Burden, David Arthur, Michael Bush, Matt Bogart, Jessica Burrows, Lianne Marie Dobbs. Photo: Christina L. Wilson

These impediments might have permanently stymied other authors; Joyce used them as fodder for a host of unforgettable characters and fuel for his incessant drive toward literary innovation.

The play also posits that many trademark items of Joycean wordplay may well have originated with mate Nora, artfully culled by her husband from their 37 years of domestic discourse and frequent exchange of erotic letters.

Himself and Nora succeeds in conquering the chief difficulty faced by historical theatre — making long-ago, faraway people come to credible onstage life in our Here and Now.

The reserved, bespectacled Joyce and dour, dowdy-hatted Nora we’ve known only from faded photos have been transformed into vigorous, flawed, passionate humans by Matt Bogart and Jessica Burrows.

Bogart and Burrows are sensational actors and singers and display a sincere intimacy in the romantic moments that form the heart of the narrative. Within the first minute of their entrance, you forget they are anything but Joyce and Nora in the flesh.

Himself and Nora-3

Jessica Burrows, Matt Bogart. Photo: Seth Walters

It’s a bit misleading to list David Arthur, Cole Burden and Lianne Marie Dobbs as mere supporting actors inhabiting the play’s 12 additional characters — Joyce’s mother, father and deathbed doctor, publisher Sylvia Beach, patron Harriet Weaver, author Ezra Pound, three Italian language students, Joyce and Nora’s children Lucia and Giorgio and an imaginary Irish priest who, as Joyce’s internal censor, appears in nearly every scene as a smirking nemesis.

Misleading because Himself and Nora is a well-structured ensemble piece that uses the versatile trio to keep the action moving at a real-time pace while imparting relevant facts needed to shape the story. Director Michael Bush earns special commendation for deftly integrating these satellite characters in a naturalistic manner that enhances the script’s dramatic highpoints throughout.

Jonathan Brielle’s score uses a broad musical style palette to capture the thematic nuance of each scene … artful storytelling through song that lets us immediately grasp who these characters are, how they view themselves and why we should care about them.

And, by offering a glimpse into the complex, volatile mindscape of one of literature’s foremost chroniclers of the human mind, Himself and Nora makes you realize there’s a little bit of James Joyce in each of us.

And, hopefully, maybe a fair bit of Nora, as well. #

H&N Opening_4.27.13_Jonathan Brielle, Leslie Uggams_Photo by Christina L. Wilson

Jonathan Brielle, Leslie Uggams. Photo: Christina L. Wilson

Additional Random Observations:

  • This will likely be the only play this year in which you’ll hear the word “fellatiable” sung or spoken. (Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls.)
  • Set design is simple and thoroughly effective, with Michael V. Moore thankfully resisting the temptation to clutter up the stage with furniture or faux-period backdrops; instead, two wide wooden benches and a tall window column focus audience attention on the actors at all times while the back scrim allows for subtle lighting changes underscoring setting and mood.
  • Haiku Review:
    Lyrical love tale
    yields timeless poetry in
    Himself and Nora
  • Hamilton Stage, not even a year old, has exquisite acoustics; the live pit band under James Sampliner’s lead sounded so crisp and clean, it seemed like a recording. (Of course, the crisp/clean may have also resulted from the musicians’ execution, which was flawless.)
  • You’ll likely start hearing the show’s finale song, River Liffey Reprise, in the coming months at pub sing-alongs, stage auditions and original choreography competitions at feiseanna; it’s got anthemic sticky power.
  • Broadway/film/TV star Leslie Uggams and husband Grahame Pratt were in attendance Opening Night … would love to have heard her deliver a soulful rendition of Danny Boy.
Hamilton Stage, Rahway NJ. Photo: Christina L. Wilson

Hamilton Stage, Rahway NJ. Photo: Christina L. Wilson

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American Theater Group presents Himself and Nora, a new musical by Jonathan Brielle. Presented at Hamilton Stage, 360 Hamilton St., Rahway NJ through May 12, 2013 (Wednesday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 3 p.m.). Tickets $30-$35 (special rates for seniors, students). Call (732) 499-8226 or buy online here

 

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Copyright 2013 New York Irish Arts