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As December steamrolls into the station, we are reminded, over and over again, with TV ads, a 7 mile radius of traffic surrounding the Mall at Millenia, and tepid temperatures that the holidays are here. Despite all that, what causes the most turmoil with the holidays is that terrifying F-word. Family. Families and the holidays go together like, well, drinking and the holidays. At the Mad Cow Theatre, you will find all of those things living and breathing full life in an oddly optimistic staging of JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD that has enough energy onstage to put the Sun Rain storming by to shame.

In JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD sisters Kate and Julia Morkin along with their niece Mary Jane host their annual winter dance and feast for their family. For 30 years it has been the same songs, same food, and same rant from the family drunk. Based off of the short story by Joyce, The Dead weaves together themes of worn out tradition and the monotony of a Dubliners life at the turn of the 20th century.

The musical opened on Broadway in 1999 to mixed reviews. New York Times Critic Ben Brantley said JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD "takes a jolting wrong turn into overstatement and sentimentality." A lukewarm reception from critics combined with a meager 120 performance run spells disaster for any new musical but the contributions JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD made to the american musical are all around us. Recent musicals like the 2012 Tony winning Best Musical, ONCE plays homage to Joyce and much of the musical has been influenced by the original 1999 production.

JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD is a soft spoken musical which fits nicely into the intimate Harriet Theatre. Here the delicate delivery will have you enveloped by the ensemble cast who are all wonderfully talented and entertaining as much as they are vocally gifted.

Director Mark Edward Smith is quickly becoming one of my favorite local directors in Orlando. Mr. Smith's wonderfully crisp production of THE HISTORY BOYS last season at Mad Cow was my first taste of his work. He has now made the jump across the Irish Sea to Ireland and is tackling a much more challenging piece of theatre.

Mr. Smith's vision of a cold, minimalistic set and lighting (William Elliott and Erin Miner) excellently conveys the plight of these people. "I wanted the warmth to come from the people in the play", said Mr. Smith at a post show discussion. He also balances a large ensemble cast that remains onstage for a majority of the time effortlessly. With assistance by choreographer Sarah Catherine Barnes, the show's few musical numbers feel fresh and enthusiastic. Here he number "Wake the Dead" certainly achieved its mission statement.

In a cadence with Mr. Smith's clear vision was an ensemble blessed with the vocal chops (both singing and in spoken, authentic dialects) to keep up with the challenging score and book by Shaun Davey and Richard Nelson. Patti McGuire, Karel Wright, and Amanda Leakey as the Morkan girls, and hosts of this winter feast, were all wonderful, and often humorous in their relationship. The ensemble also featured the spectacular Hannah Benitez and Cole NeSmith as Miss Molly Ivors and Freddy Malin, respectively. The mournful Miss Malins rarely stepped into the limelight but Janine Papin's poise was superb and delightful to observe her observing others. Even the talent in the more thankless roles, such as Blake Aburn who plays Michael, a music student, and whose song "Kate Kearney" benchmarked the entire show, lived up to the high bar raised by the characters who frequented center stage more often.

Even though much of The Dead is an ensemble piece, the role of Gabriel, does stand out as a primary character as he acts as the narrator through the show. Nicholas Wuehrmann's Gabriel contains an awful lot of unfounded self confidence and pride which, unfortunately, is the opposite of how James Joyce originally wrote the character. Joyce depicts Gabriel as repressed, insecure, pathetic, and a bit of an introvert. In a way he is a failed version of Joyce himself. These choices were unfortunate and makes the reveal late in the play seem hard to swallow.

Overall, while this production contained jubilancy throughout, the problem with JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD is Richard Nelson's book which takes a short story about forced merriment, oppression, routine, and living in monotony, aka: being dead, and spins it into an over boiled, superficial tale of family coming together to eat, drink, and be merry.

JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD is still an enormously moving piece of musical theatre- a musical rarely produced. So take a break from A Christmas Carol for one year and head over to the Mad Cow Theatre and enjoy this Irish winter tale.

JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD plays through January 4th. For Tickets visit their website.

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From This Author Justin J Sacramone