Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2005
I have bad news and good news.
The bad news is that at 4:45 pm on Sunday, August 14, when the press, the composer-lyricist, and several distinguished guests had been assembled at the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington for the official 5 pm opening performance of William Finn’s Elegies:A Song Cycle, a thunderstorm struck and the power was knocked out for an hour.
The good news is that, with a 90-minute show and two-hours of emergency lighting on hand, the production proceeded after a slight delay during which two flashlights were rigged up to light musical director Deborah Abramson’s music and two stage lights were powered up and focused on the stage. Since Elegies requires only a group of strong singers and a piano, all was well. We the press were repeatedly told that we had missed out on Matthew Richards lovely lighting design, which I am sure is beautiful playing across Tobin Ost’s soaring panels depicting fluffy white clouds on a soft blue sky (you get the idea from the photo below), and I’m sure it enhances the music, but frankly I was happy with the simple staging and gorgeous, unamplified voices of the cast.
As the title implies, Elegies is a collection of songs composer-lyricist William Finn wrote in memory of people and pets in his life who have passed away. When I listened to the CD in preparation for reviewing this show, the music made me profoundly sad. But then I listened to it when I was alone in the car on a dark night driving to and from Troy, New York. Take my advice and don’t listen to this music alone in the dark. Go to the Mahaiwe and hear these songs interpreted by talented, living, breathing artists with a crowd of people around you. There the humor and the humanity outshine the sadness and the loss.
Death is the great American taboo. We don’t talk or think about it. We don’t look at it. In these songs Finn looks death and grief and the enormous void left in the universe by the passing of each soul squarely in the face and finds reason to laugh, cry, and sing. The songs are varied in style and attitude. Sometimes they celebrate a life well spent, (Joe Papp and Peggy Hewitt & Mysty del Giorno), sometimes they mourn lives cut short, (Monica & Mark). Sometimes they focus on an individual, such as actor/composer Jack Eric Williams (in the song of the same name), or Finn’s mother Barbara (14 Dwight Avenue, Natick, Massachusetts and When the Earth Stopped Turning), and sometimes on larger groups with memories of extended family gathering to celebrate Passover (Passover) or the victims of 9/11 (Boom Boom and Looking Up). The variety and director Rob Ruggerio’s swift transitions between songs and artists keep the show moving, never wallowing in any one moment for too long.
In the past I have been known to complain about shows that are really concerts, rather than plays. Elegies walks a fine line between these two genres, but the subtitle is accurate – Elegies is a song cycle with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It does bring you full circle and along the way you have the pleasure of meeting a great many people (and dogs) important in Finn’s life. In other words, Finn’s talent and artistry make all the difference and tip Elegies firmly over onto the theatrical side.
Ruggerio has assembled a very talented cast of five – Bradford William Anderson (the younger Caucasian guy), Sandy Binion (the brunette woman), Romain Frugé (the other Caucasian guy), André Ward (the African-American guy), and Sally Wilfert (the blonde woman). I have identified them by age, race, and gender because they never identify themselves on stage and this will function as a way to tell the players without a scorecard, if you will. Each performer is a distinctive personality and a great singing talent. Ruggerio has the rotate through the numbers so that you get an even dose of everyone, which is a good thing because you really don’t want to miss a minute of anyone.
The women get most of the solo tear-jerkers, Binion delivers powerful renditions of Infinite Joy and Looking Up and Wilfert commandeers the stage with Passover and Anytime (I Am There). The three men are teamed up on Joe Papp and Monica & Mark, but Anderson gets two fine comic numbers Fred and My Dogs, while Frugé ties many threads of story together with the initial and reprise versions of Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving. Ward gets our attention with the first full number Mister Choi & Madame G and displays his fine voice at the end in Saying Our Goodbyes. From time to time the whole cast sings together, but even as a group Ruggerio keeps them separate on the stage. They don’t actually coalesce as a group until the final curtain call.
I really enjoyed the chance to hear these five singers “unplugged”. They came way downstage to sing and the combination of the good acoustics in the Mahaiwe and their powerful and well-trained voices enabled me to hear them clearly without amplification, but remember that I had listened to and read about the show before seeing/hearing it. My companion, who was not familiar with the show, had a hard time understanding the lyrics until the amplification system was restored after the power came back on. Finn’s powerful, eloquent, and often amusing lyrics are not to be missed, and if some amplification makes it possible for everyone to hear and enjoy them then I am all in favor. And I have to say that when I first became aware of the amplification I was not overwhelmed by it. It truly does enhance rather than overpower the fine performances of the singers.
Elegies is wonderful life-affirming and soul-lifting theatre. Death is a part of life that touches us all. You may not know the people Finn is writing about, but you know people who have touched your life in similar ways. Elegies will help you remember them if they are gone and remind you to celebrate them if they are still living.
Elegies was originally presented at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in April of 2003. An original cast recording, which omits the songs Fred and Dear Reader, is available. This production features one new song entitled I Do, I Do, I Do, which is a tribute to the late author James Goldman, author of the book for Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (which opened the 2005 Barrington Stage season), as well as the award-winning play and screenplay for The Lion in Winter.
The Barrington Stage Company production of Elegies:A Song Cycle runs through August 28 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA. The show runs ninety minutes with NO intermission and is about a somber and mature subject. I wouldn't bring kids under 13. Call the box office 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005