Himself and Nora: A Watered-down Irish Whiskey
When I think of James Joyce, I think of a wild Irish drinker and writer, sexual and fiery. But I knew very little about his muse and his lover/wife, Nora. So the chance to learn a little about this wild man and the woman he snatched up in Ireland and lived mostly in exile with, bore two children, and wrote some amazing pieces of work, well, that sounded like a fascinating piece of theatre, especially if the story is told through the fire of some good old Irish music and dance.
Maybe this exact thinking set me up for disappointment. There is little fire in Himself and Nora, and very little Irishness, if there is such a thing. I did get to learn about the lives of these two, the love they bore for each other, and how she was maybe something more than just inspiration for his work. In some way it seems he was more like a curator of Nora’s words, snatching up the good bits and organizing them into masterpieces of literature. But as musical theatre, Himself and Nora is no masterpiece. I kept waiting for some drama to be had, some fights that were more about money and living abroad, because the way it was portrayed in this light musical, was that it wasn’t so bad. The odd thing about this show is that when they did break into song, even as they are fighting about paying the rent, it was always about how much they loved each other and how they would stand by each other. Which is great I guess, but does every song sung by these two have to be a love song?
The two leads are appealing enough though. Matt Bogart makes for a very handsome James Joyce with a very fine tenor voice, but maybe not the one I wanted to hear from this wild Irish writer. It’s a good voice, but lacks the danger and excitement of the kind I wanted to hear lead this musical about James Joyce. Whitney Bashor, the best thing in this musical, as the muse, Nora, has more fire and Irish snap in her singing and story telling, and she certainly has a beautiful voice, but sometimes I wanted to hear the anger and passion fly up more than love and courage. I wanted to feel the flip side of love, but I think that is missing more in the music/lyrics, rather then the performances. There are a few moments in Jonathan Brielle’s book that speaks of trouble and clash; moments of conflict, but rarely did it seem to make it into his music and lyrics.
And then there was the ever present priest, played by Zachary Prince, who literally is always near, hovering, with a remark or two to share about Joyce’s eternal damnation. The delivery and the characterization felt a bit to playful and jokey; not powerful or ominous as I somehow wanted the priest to be. The church was such a strong and powerful negative force on both of their lives, keeping them in exile and trying to deny him comfort, peace, and success, but in the way it was directed here by Michael Bush, the priest and the church came off more like a meddling uncle.
Much better off were the other character actors who bounced and sang around in numerous secondary parts. Michael McCormick and Lianne Marie Dobbs are at least having a good old time. I especially enjoyed Dobbs playing the publisher Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Company who is the first to risk publishing the great novel, “Ulysses”. Here the two are a hoot, and such a relief from all those non-irish love songs. Some fun amongst the plodding story telling.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are some sweet moments of musical joy in Himself and Nora, but I must admit the whole thing felt a bit too soft irish rock elevator music-like, rather then emotionally fiery love and hate. I wanted more passion and fire in this story telling of the great Irish writer and his love, Nora, but all I got was a watered down whiskey.
Himself and Nora Written by Jonathan Brielle; Directed by Michael Bush; Choreography by Kelli Barclay
Cast Matt Bogart, Whitney Bashor, Michael McCormick, Lianne Marie Dobbs and Zachary Prince