Documenting a life from birth to death in musical theater promises to be a hefty challenge. But when the life is that of widely studied though generally under-read literary heavyweight James Joyce, the task could seem foolhardy.
Yet that's precisely the challenge The Old Globe takes on in its latest production, "Himself and Nora," with varying degrees of success. Performances are grand. Music is hit and miss. The set is rather uninteresting.
The world premiere musical, which opened last week and runs through April 24, feels a bit like cramming for a James Joyce final exam when you've slept through all the classes (and only read the Cliffs Notes for "Ulysses").
The play opens with James' naked birth, and steams through 59 years of the writer's life -- from brief glimpses of James as a young man to his meeting with future wife Nora, to their various self-imposed exiles in Italy, Paris and Zurich, to the slow degeneration of James' eyesight, his troubles getting "Ulysses" published, troubles with drinking, troubles with Nora, troubles with their two children, final publication of "Ulysses" and his finally relenting to marry Nora. The play ends with his death, when he commences to dance a jig at his Irish wake.
It's a lot of ground to cover -- too much, especially since "Himself and Nora" is at heart a love story, not a biography. But Sheila Walsh (book and lyrics) and Jonathan Brielle (music and lyrics) seem at times to have forgotten that.
The play at least looks good, with Tobin Ost's snappy costume design, and hunky Matt Bogart playing an animated if unsubtle Joyce and former Miss America Kate Shindle playing Nora. Bogart and Shindle give fiery performances, and the sparks fly with believable passion that is both sweet and sexy.
But Shindle, a statuesque beauty, is the powerhouse of this performance. She plays the sexually liberated, self-possessed chambermaid with the appropriate balance of self-confidence and vulnerability, poise and unbridled spirit.
The show is at its best when the love story parallels James and Nora's love affair with words. Just as great writers have a knack for creating language and new meaning, great lovers have a flair for finding new ways to express their passion. So when James meets his lifelong love for the first time, he says, "Word me forever."
The lovers are smitten by each other's words, and their fun, sensual wordplay finds its way into the some of the better songs like "Touch Kiss" and "What Better Thing." The performance of "Let's Have a Drink" is a visual and aural feast of barroom merriment interspersed with the rousing sexual fantasy of the couple's often ribald letters.
Most of the songs, though, are fairly forgettable. There are too many simplistic lyrics delivered in rhyming couplets, and surprisingly little homage paid to Irish music. The five-piece outfit, tucked away upstage, consists of two synthesizers, woodwinds, bass and percussion. It's not quite enough to fill out the needs of this show.
Rounding out the cast are David Edwards, Frank Mastrone and Kathy Santen, who deliver valiant performances portraying a dizzying array of characters that are speedily introduced and shortly forgotten. Edwards gives the best of these performances as a priest and voice of the reproachful Catholic Church. Santen is delightful as the wealthy patron who pays the Joyce family's way to Paris in the fun, silly vaudeville of "All Expenses Paid."
The irony of "Himself and Nora" in its current incarnation -- and it does feel like a work in progress -- is that many audience members will enjoy this production far more than slogging through 800 pages of "Ulysses." But hardcore Joyce fans might want to skip this for a quiet evening with "Dubliners" and a shot of Jameson.
PROGRAM: "Himself and Nora," by Sheila Walsh and Jonathan Brielle, directed by Jeff Calhoun and Joseph Hardy
Organization: The Old Globe
Dates: Through April 24
Show times: Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Location: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
More information: (619) 23-GLOBE, www.theglobetheatres.com