A unique kind of eugloy

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007
Robert Cushman


In what may be a financial first, the listed sponsors for Elegies include the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. There is an obvious congruence here between the backer and the thing backed; as its title suggests, William Finn's "song cycle" really is about dead people, real ones, personally known to the author. I'm also reminded, in a backhanded way, of an advertising slogan that I used to see as I drove past Toronto's most celebrated resting place. "Yes," it said, "we have plots available." I often thought of putting them in touch with some playwrights of my acquaintance.

Elegies doesn't have a plot, but it does have a shape. It begins with papers raining down on the floor, as if from the twin towers on 9/11, and it ends by returning to that date. This, unfortunately, is the show's weakest point. But we'll start with the strengths, some of them surprising. This is a piece that continually risks sentimentality and self-pity, but nearly always avoids them.

Finn is the composer-lyricist of March of the Falsettos and its sequel, Falsetto land, two musicals that always struck me as more admirable for their ambitions than for their achievements; they tried to musicalize complex relationships but often failed to find the words that would make them concrete and dramatic. Elegies goes after simpler game; for the most part if offers soliloquies rather than conversations. In a series of songs -- initially conceived, I believe, for private commemoration rather than public performance -- Finn pays tribute to a lost generation of New Yorkers. Grief is the theme, but comedy is often the vessel; there are more laugh-out-loud lines here than in some musicals that go begging for them; the rhymes, unusually for this writer, are as neatly wrapped as the observations. And the music, wayward but piercing, offers just the right kind of support.

Those mourned include one genuine theatrical celebrity, the volcanic producer Joseph Papp ("Joe Papp / never took crap / except from writers ?"). Others are off-Broadway cult-figures, like the actress Peggy Hewitt (who "was loved / and she knew it") and Jack Eric Williams, known to me as the original mountainous Beadle of Sweeney Todd, but also a composer. This last tribute is cleverly framed as a letter to another composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, with instructions to pass on regards to the other triple-barrelled songsmiths (hello, Jason Robert Brown; hello, Michael John La- Chiusa) of the generation below Finn's own. There's some refreshing barb here.

You may not have known these people when the songs start, but you do by the time they end. It makes you all the readier to respond to those that strike closer to home. Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving memorializes what seems to have been an annual gay ritual; later in the show comes a song commemorating Mark himself. This arouses dangerous memories of a kind of song that used to be inescapable in New York cabaret -- the "my lover's just died of AIDS and it's your fault" song -- but rises above them. It leads into a potentially even more dangerous kind of lament. Mark had a friend, Monica, who also died too young, and Finn offers his version of a song she might have sung to her daughter. Note the tact of that; it isn't palmed off as what she actually would have sung and, because of that remove, it's moving. There's also a lovely tune called Venice, about a curmudgeonly member of the Thanksgiving group who wanted to take his friends there. And these in turn prepare us for Finn getting really autobiographical with a stoically cheerful number sung by his dying mother, being taken for her last drive, and a eulogy by the younger son who was at the wheel. It sounds as if it should be dreadful but it isn't. Finn writes from his heart but keeps himself, for the most part, out of the picture.

The production, by Acting Up Stage who last year gave us the excellent John and Jen, is very good, with witty and sensitive staging by Lezlie Wade and impeccable musical direction by Wayne Gwillim. The performances are mostly good and, in the case of Thom Allison who pretty much plays Finn, superb. He shows off an amazing technique without showing off; he holds long pealing notes in the middle of lines that don't disrupt the flow and flashes a satanic grin that modulates into a compassionate smile. He also does a very good Quentin Crisp impersonation. Barbara Barsky does well by the mother's song, and even better by an early acerbic number for a teacher with high standards and low expectations. Steven Gallagher starts the show arrestingly, though he's oddly starved of solos later on. Eliza-Jane Scott rises to Monica's song ... Michael Strathmore has an agreeable bounciness...

- Until March 3. For ticket information call 416-368-3110.