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Off Broadway

Aisle Say On The Square: Ulysses In Tune-Town

Aisle Say On The Square: Ulysses In Tune-Town

It’s folly to do a musical about a famous person’s life, because who he is and what he wants will perforce keep shifting, which makes it impossible to keep theme and objective in focus—such misfocus being the enemy of musicals—and it’s generally a bad idea to write a musical that’s about a love story that isn’t filtered through the trials and tribulations of a plotted story; because plot provides both narrative muscle and the context against which the love story is perceived, tested and challenged. Love stories that are only about the inner workings of are relationship are, in musical theatre terms, “soft”, lacking the urgency of event to amplify them. (i.e. They’re in love, they’re not in love, they’re in trouble, they resolve, they’re together, they’re apart, they’re grappling with goals. It’s almost random and it’s impossible to sustain narrative tension, because all the couple can ever do is alternate between circling the runway or circling the drain.) Movies can pull this off because the up close intimacy of the camera allows for the tension of minutiae; musicals can achieve a level of verité in behavior and performance, but their stories need action (or at least thematic movement) and laser beam focus.

Enter Himself and Nora, which gets just about everything wrong, though also manages the neat trick, under the circumstances, of not being dull, which can be enough to earn you proponents. It’s about the relationship between groundbreaking Irish novelist James Joyce (Matt Bogart) and his wife Nora (Whitney Bashor) and how devoted they are to each other by dint of sexual attraction, nationalism, mutual fascination with each others’ strength of spirit and shared belief in his talent. You really can’t make much out of that, and indeed, composer-lyricist-librettist Jonathan Brielle spends an awful lot of time huffing and puffing over what amounts to a love story overloading a summary record of a career hung on the bare bones of biographical trajectory. Songs about nationality, come and go without saying much more than, “you bet we’re Irish,” ballads happen before we’re ready for them and in profusion and, perhaps most unfortunate, language is pedestrian, which for a show whose lead character revolutionized wordplay (to say nothing of world literature) is a conspicuous verisimilitude stealer. Nor does the score go anywhere that isn’t familiar of tone or trope.

But Michael Bush has somehow pulled a rabbit out of his directorial hat, and without overstating (or overstaging) the case or giving way to wheezing effort (which would be all too easy), he keeps visual interest afloat (an inventive set design by Paul Tate DePoo III helps enormously) and the actors reined into effective, intimate performances that, even in extremis, never betray a texture of humanism. And the cast, which also includes Michael McCormick and Lianne Marie Dobbs, is a very fortunate one for this material to have, because they have strong enough personae to provide a certain compensation for weak dramaturgy.

Given that as the tightrope walk of this production, it’ll be very interesting to see how long Himself and Nora can hang in, especially in the wake of a decent-ish Times review.

Stay tuned…


Off Broadway

David Spencer is an award-winning composer-lyricist, lyricist-librettist, author and musical theatre teacher. He has written music and lyrics for the Richard Rodgers Development Award-winning musical The Fabulist, which also contributed to his winning a Kleban lyrics award and several Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation grants. He is also lyricist-librettist for two musicals with composer Alan Menken: Weird Romance (WPA 1992, York 2004) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which had its sold out, extended world premiere in Montreal in Summer 2015; cast album release soon. He made his professional debut in 1984 with the English Adaptation of La Bohéme at the Public Theatre; and he has since written music and lyrics for Theatreworks/USA’s all-new, award-winning Young Audience versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1996) and Les Misérables (1999) (book and direction for both by Rob Barron). Currently he is writing book, music and lyrics for a musical based on the iconic Russian novel The Golden Calf. Spencer’s published books are the Alien Nation novel Passing Fancy (Pocket, 1994), The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (Heinemann, 2005, a regularly reprinted industry standard) and the script of Weird Romance (Samuel French, 1993). He is on faculty and teaches at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and has taught at HB Studio, the Workshop Studio Theater and Goldsmith’s College in London. His primary professional affiliations are BMI, The Dramatists Guild and The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.

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