Death has never sounded so good

Monday, February 19th, 2007
Kamal Al-Solaylee

*** 1/2 (out of 4)

The most uplifting, life-affirming musical in town right now is one in which each of its 18 songs is an elegy for the dead and gone.

Elegies: A Song Cycle is a celebration of friends, family members and an assortment of dogs who have walked in and out of composer William Finn's life. First produced at New York's Lincoln Center Theatre in 2003, this song cycle receives its Toronto premiere in a quietly but emotionally effective production from the three-year-old Acting Up Stage company. Tightly directed by Lezlie Wade, the musical, which stars Thom Allison, Barbara Barsky, Steven Gallagher, Eliza-Jane Scott and Michael Strathmore, opened Friday at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs.

In a city that recently has witnessed the demise of a big musical (The Lord of the Rings), the slaughter of a classic one (The Threepenny Opera), and the premature birth and inevitable death of a homegrown effort (The Story of My Life), this relatively unknown work and its low-key interpreters should be embraced and feted. For unlike The Lord of the Rings, Elegies is intimate, personal, yet effortlessly universal. In stark contrast to The Threepenny Opera, it is cast with musical-theatre people who (shock! horror!) can sing. Compared to The Story of My Life, another musical that revolved around death and eulogizing, this one is sung without amplification, and actually tells a good story.

Such comparisons may give Elegies legs up in Toronto, but the show remains a slice of New York through and through. Finn is memorializing a city that woke up on Sept. 11, 2001 to a collective experience of death and loss. The last three songs in the cycle are sung from the twin perspectives of a husband trapped in one of the towers, and of his wife, who's watching the tragedy unfold on TV.

You might think this could be exploitative or excessively maudlin, but Finn gears up to his climax through songs that paint a picture of New York as a mecca for theatre, gay liberation, Jewish intellectuals in the seventies and early eighties -- all before AIDS came along. Finn makes AIDS a bold and convincing prelude to the devastation of 9/11. Such is the richness and wit of the lyrics, and the evocative nature of the score, that they had me nostalgic for a New York I never knew.

But if 9/11 is the climax of the show, its foundations are three songs Finn has written in memory of his mother, who died in 1998. Barsky gets to sing two of them, and what a thrill that is. She's maternal, wise and full of hope in Infinite Joy; vulnerable, dependent and ready for her final exit in her usual quirky way on 14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts.

The rest of the cast is (and plays) younger, but are equally poised, and just as careful with the ebb and flow of the show's emotional journey. Allison brings soulfulness and unassuming masculinity to the mainly gay characters he plays. After a couple of slightly overemoted songs, Gallagher and Scott, now playing the husband and wife on 9/11 on Goodbye/ Boom Boom, capture a state of mind few of us (with any luck) will ever know, while keeping up with the score's demanding vocal acrobatics.

Strathmore gets more than his fair share of the cute songs, including one about a series of dogs who keep dying on him, but creates a poignant stage moment when he sings of a day When the Earth Stopped Turning. It's a song where AIDS, 9/11 and the death of Finn's mother are collapsed into one ball of heartbreaking grief.

All the singers are given a chance to hit their notes, and convey every last word in the lyrics, under Wayne Gwillim's masterful musical direction.

If there's one caveat about Elegies it is that it's got one or two cute songs too many. Yet if the show proves anything, it's that musical theatre, while always a challenge, is not rocket science.

All it takes is a few good songs, a handful of actors who can sing, and a director who trusts both material and cast. Why has that eluded the biggest companies in town?

Elegies continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs until March 3 (416-368-3110).