Off-Broadway Review: “Himself and Nora” Takes Risks at the Minetta Lane Theatre

June 6, 2016 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Review: “Himself and Nora” at the Minetta Lane Theatre (Through Saturday August 6, 2016)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Brielle
Directed by Michael Bush
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Himself and Nora,” currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre, follows the life and career of the iconic James Joyce (played with a stolid cheerfulness by Matt Bogart) and his muse Nora Barnacle (played with a steely charm by Whitney Bashor) with historical accuracy. Jonathan Brielle’s new musical highlights events in the couple’s lives in chronological order from their meeting and courting, their self-imposed exile to Europe, Joyce’s deteriorating eyesight, the difficulties in publishing “Ulysses” in America, the death of Joyce’s father and his daughter’s schizophrenia, and through to Joyce’s illness that resulted in his death. However, the musical is more than a timeline of life events of the famous couple.

Equally intriguing is the musical’s attention to issues that are known to have driven Joyce’s creative engine, including his love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Jonathan Brielle cleverly uses the omnipresent (and apparently omniscient) Priest (played with an appropriate snobbish priggishness by Zachary Prince) who is not only present on stage but, like an annoying Greek Chorus, comments on the action of the musical with acerbic pretense.

“Himself and Nora” is a delight for the senses particularly the sense of hearing. Matt Bogart has an engaging voice that soars through the register with delightful ease and impressive strength. Whitney Bashor’s vocal control is equally impressive. At times, her singing is so effortless, one might assume she is simply channeling the music! Mr. Bogart transfixes the audience with his “Land of Erin” and “Always in Love.” Ms. Bashor captures the heart and soul of the audience with “Stand Fast,” “Without A Man,” and “What Better Thing.” Additionally, both leads are superb actors who bring a high degree of authenticity to their multi-layered and complicated characters.

Under Michael Bush’s attentive and perceptive direction (these are not one and the same), the remaining supportive cast – Michael McCormick as Joyce’s Da and Ezra Pound and Lianne Marie Dobbs playing multiple roles including Joyce’s Mother – deliver impressive performances and exhibit strong vocal skills. Ms. Dobbs’ portrayal of Joyce’s mother is heartwarming and thoughtful.

Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design is towering both in size and in emotional content. Within his design, scenes change with ease while the focus always remains on the action on the stage. Amy Clark’s costumes are appropriate throughout and historically accurate. Jason Lyons’ lighting and Keith Caggiano’s sound complement and heighten the overall effective staging of the musical.

Although it seems at times “Himself and Nora” has not decided exactly what it wants to be, the overall effect of the new musical is pleasing and thoroughly captivating. It would seem the audience would wish to learn more of Joyce’s motivations throughout his life and a deeper understanding of his important relationships with his parents and siblings. “Himself and Nora” is not without some complications.

For example, although history confirms that the relationship between Joyce and Barnacle, especially prior to their late marriage, was highly sexually charged, “Himself and Nora” chooses to remind the audience of that fact in almost every scene of the new musical. There is more on stage groping, poking, and smelling than necessary. The story of Joyce and Nora clearly is more about Nora’s profound influence on Joyce’s ability to write about what he knew best: the people and the place of Ireland.

What “Himself and Nora” does accomplish, it achieves successfully and with considerable charm and is unquestionably worth a visit to the Minetta Lane Theatre. The new musical shares the life of a writer with an enormous ego (hence the title) who – though he struggles with a myriad of demons from without and within – remains one of the most important figures in the canon of modern literature.