Speaking well of the dead

Monday, February 19th, 2007
John Colbourn

Mourning is only our initial response to loss.

But time and tears have a way of smoothing mourning's rough and cutting edges to a polished smoothness that, when caressed just so, offers a bruised heart more comfort than pain.

Or as playwright/composer/lyricist William Finn suggests in his Elegies: A Song Cycle, it can lead you to the realization that "The living was the prize. The ending's not the story." Finn's Elegies opened Friday in its Toronto premiere in the CanStage Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, where it will run through March 3, a presentation of Acting Up Stage.

As its title implies, Elegies is Finn's reflection on lives lived and lost in his sphere, inspired, apparently by the death of his late mother -- and while a few of the almost 20 songs that comprise the work pay tribute to the late matriarch of the Finn clan (most notably a touching number titled 14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts, in which an aged and ailing mother and her son revisit the family home), Finn fleshes things out to recall a host of other people who have touched his life, then left it

It is an evening of deceptively simple tunes, often blunt rhymes and mixed emotions as he revisits those he has loved and lost.

There's the Korean family who once welcomed a lonely young man into their store and then their lives for a brief period, a spinster teacher in search of a single student on which to leave her imprint, and even the numerous dogs with whom Finn shared his childhood.

This being Finn, still perhaps best known as the Tony-winning composer of the gay-themed Falsettos, there are a host of gay friends too, many of whom were lost to AIDS and who are touchingly recalled and celebrated in Mark's All Male Thanksgiving, a tribute to lawyer/activist Mark Thalen and an annual dinner he threw for his friends.

And finally, in a moody musical evening that celebrates the New York state of mind (perhaps a little too much), Elegies tries to offer some perspective and comfort as it reflects on the horrors of 9/11 -- and if, because of the sheer magnitude of it all, it falls short in that area, it must be applauded for the effort nonetheless .

As written by Finn and as staged by director Lezlie Wade, this is more of a memory-driven cabaret than it is a full-blown piece of musical theatre. It is a work that puts a spotlight squarely on performance and consigns such considerations as plot and production values to secondary roles at best, and happily Sarah Melamed's sets and costumes show a deep respect for those priorities.

Wade is fortunate, too, in having found a cast of strong performers to bring Finn's tunes to life, a quintet anchored by veterans Barbara Barsky and Thom Allison and fleshed out by Steven Gallagher, Eliza-Jane Scott and young Michael Strathmore.

Working comfortably without amplification in this intimate space, they are expertly backed by musical director Wayne Gwillim, a young man who approaches a keyboard with a skill well beyond his years -- and happily Wade keeps a firm rein on the proceeding, allowing the songs themselves to speak and only occasionally allowing them to be oversold in performance.

And, if in the end, it all sounds a trifle melancholy, chances are you'll be surpised. Quiet, reflective, and often touchingly funny, Elegies is in the end more of a celebration of lives lived, rather than a lamentation on lives lost.