Review: ‘Himself and Nora’—A Musical Exploration of James Joyce and His Muse
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, July 13, 2016
When I reviewed the new musical Himself and Nora when it was part of the 2012 New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF), I called the show “promising” and “vibrant.” In retrospect, the show may have benefitted from comparison to the NYMF shows surrounding it that year. Either that, or I had somehow taken leave of my critical senses.
Because Himself and Nora, which recently opened for a commercial run Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre, somehow seems to have lost any promise or vibrancy in the intervening four years.
Himself and Nora—which has book, lyrics and music by Jonathan Brielle—centers around the lusty and tempestuous relationship between famed Irish writer James Joyce and his longtime lover and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle. The danger, of course, in writing a show about one of the greatest writers ever lies in crafting words that do the great man justice, which Himself and Nora patently fails to do. In fact, the musical reduces Joyce, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, to a smutty, petulant schoolboy.
Beyond the biographical disservice that Brielle does to Joyce, his show fails at even the most basic dramaturgy. At numerous times throughout the production, I found myself asking, “Wait, where are we right now, and how did we get here?”
The reasons for the conflicts between Joyce and Nora are frequently unclear. Sure, we’re meant to understand that tension arises from Joyce’s difficulty getting published, and consequently his ability to pay the bills. Joyce also refuses for many years to marry Nora because of his resentment toward the Catholic church.
So there’s plenty of conflict to be had in the story, it’s just that the dialogue doesn’t always make it clear what the pair happen to be fighting about at the particular moment. At the end of the show, when Joyce meets his ultimate fate, we’re left to guess as to how exactly it came about. Suddenly he has a pain in his abdomen, and by the end of the next scene he’s bought the farm.
Interspersed amid the clunky book are the generic music and lyrics. Brielle seems to be aiming for an idiomatic Irish sound, but other than a jig here and reel there, the score could just as easily come from Nashville as the Emerald Isle.
The dramatic justification and purpose for the songs is often murky. We know that James and Nora are feeling up a storm, but we’re not really clear as to why they’re singing, apart from a few forced dialogue interjections here and there. Brielle’s score suffers from a tiresome case of Really Long Note Syndrome (RLNS), with most songs ending with a performer in sustained belting mode.
One real reason to see the show (which was poorly attended at the Saturday night performance I saw) would be to see a fine group of performers doing their damnedest to make Brielle’s show work. Matt Bogart makes for an animated and attractive Joyce, as he did when the show played at NYMF. Whitney Bashor gives the Nora character more depth and drive than Brielle’s writing really deserves. Of particular note in the supporting cast is Lianne Marie Hobbs in a variety of roles, most affectingly as Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter.
It’s great to see a NYMF show taking on an afterlife. But over the years I’ve been attending the Festival, I can think of a number of shows that were far more deserving of a commercial run than Himself and Nora.
Cover photo: Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor in Himself and Nora; courtesy of production
Himself and Nora. Preview: May 14, 2016; opened: June 6, 2016; closing date: September 4, 2016 at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, Manhattan. Running time: 2 hours. Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle. Directed by Michael Bush; music director/piano, James Sampliner; choreography by Kelli Barclay; scenic design by Paul Tate DePoo III, costume design by Amy Clark; lighting design by Jason Lyons; sound design by Keith Caggiono; wig and hair design by J. Jared Janas; production stage manager, CJ LaRoche; general management by DR Theatrical Management; producer, Cherie King; executive producer, R. Erin Craig/La Vie Productions; producer, JonathanRon Productions. Cast: Matt Bogart, Whitney Bashor, Michael McCormick, Lianne Marie Dobbs and Zachary Prince