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.