Review Excerpts

In death, celebrating life (February 17, 2007)
Richard Ouzounian
**** (out of 4)

It will break your heart – but in the best possible way.

Let's get right to the point: Elegies: A Song Cycle is the most satisfying, fulfilling, beautifully performed piece of musical theatre I've seen in this city for a long time.

It officially opened last night at the Berkeley St. Upstairs Theatre (although I saw it at a preview), and if I were you, I'd book my tickets now. Because once word gets out about what an absolute winner this show is, the place should be packed every night.

Elegies: A Song Cycle delivers just what its title promises: 18 songs written by William Finn, which are indeed elegiac in the sense of being "a song or poem for one who is dead."

The only difference is that most formal elegies are solemn in nature, while many of these are ribald, joyful and life-embracing. Oh yes, there is heartbreak as well and if you can sit through the final half-hour of this 90-minute show without being dissolved in tears, then your heart, I fear, is made of stone.

Inspired by the 1998 passing of his mother, Finn began to write a series of songs that celebrated people who had departed from his life. They range from a devoted family of Korean grocers who fed him when he was young and poor, to a group of gay men who celebrated "an all-male Thanksgiving" together each November.

There are ornery songwriters he really didn't like, chicken farmers who read Jean-Paul Sartre and even some famous people like New York theatre giant Joseph Papp.

All the songs are witty and perceptive, written with that combination of rhythmic invention and melodic idiosyncrasy that mark Finn's work. At their wildest, they're almost surreal, but at their best, they're clearly sublime.

That takes us through the first hour and were the show to end then, you'd be tempted to pronounce it "offbeat and interesting."

But then Finn moves in for the kill – literally. He starts with a song called "Anytime (I Am There)," which is the call from beyond the grave of a young mother who died of cancer to her daughters. Then we're into a pair of songs about Finn's marvellous mother Barbara and her last day on earth.

And while you're still reeling from the force of that, you find yourself on the morning of 9/11, where a husband is trapped in one of the twin towers while his wife watches it all on the TV at home.

The amazing thing about Finn's writing (and the performers in this production) is that while they fill these sequences to the brim with emotion, they never spill over the edge into maudlin excess, over-emotionalism or sentimentality.

Discreet direction by Lezlie Wade and sensitive piano accompaniment by Wayne Gwillim are two ingredients that make this possible.

But it's the marvellous cast who deserve most of the kudos.

Barbara Barsky claims our focus most strongly, not only because she's playing the figure of Finn's mother, but also because she has a quiet dignity and reserved power that fill her songs with nobility time and time again.

Steven Gallagher is also doing amazing work, proving himself an actor capable of conveying the most subtle emotions and delicate shades of meaning, while also knowing how to nail us to the wall when the moment demands.

And the talented Thom Allison reveals a new maturity and control here. Without sacrificing any of his sardonic glee or deep-seated feeling, he's learned how to communicate them in a more minimalist way that is even more effective.

Newcomer Michael Strathmore makes an astonishing impression. For most of the show, he's called on to do the broad comedy and he delivers it with charm and style, using his youthful energy to its maximum. But when the chips are down, he suddenly takes you to places of deep pain with an effortlessness that is breathtaking.

And Eliza-Jane Scott rounds out the quintet by nicely providing some of the more offbeat comedy characterizations as well as some of the most intensely personal sequences.

The whole work has been designed by Sarah Melamed with utter simplicity against a background of flowing white drapes, and Paul Major lights everything with an understated skill that works well.

It's also wonderful to hear these actors sing without benefit of any amplification, letting their own vocal skills provide all the modulation we need.

Elegies: A Song Cycle may not be for everyone. If you're looking for a campy romp, an empty spectacle or pointless nostalgia, you won't find it here.

But if you believe that musical theatre is an art form capable of rousing you to both tears and laughter in the same evening, then this is the show for you.

"The living was the prize. The ending's not the story," sing the cast and they're right.

These songs may initially seem to be about death, but instead, they're ultimately all about life and how we should embrace it while we can.

Death has never sounded so good (February 19, 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?

(February 19, 2006)
Michael Engelbert

***** (out of 5)

There are big musicals and very mainstream shows but there are also small productions which can be very satisfying.  One of the local organizations that produces these smaller gems is Acting Up Stage Theatre Company and with their production of “Elegies: A Song Cycle” by William Finn, we have a real gem. 

This is not only because of the material by Finn but the absolutely outstanding performances by the cast – Thom Allison, Barbara Barsky, Steven Gallagher, Eliza-Jane Scott and Michael Strathmore.  ‘Elegies’ is an introspective piece about post 9/11 reflections of friends, family, pets, and victims of the tragedy.  In remembrance this song cycle is a celebration - the funny and poignant – truly a tribute to life. 

As the program says “the living was the prize.  The ending’s not the story”.

Director Lezlie Wade gives us a production that rates 5 stars out of 5.   

You will experience 5 very satisfying performances accompanied by solo piano, definitely a show not to miss.  William Finn’s “Elegies: A Song Cycle” is currently playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs. It’s a very small theatre so I urge you – don’t delay in catching “Elegies – a Song Cycle” playing until March 3rd.

Stunning musicals move audiences to tears (March, 2007)
Allan Gould

…The third evening of theatre-and-music that I just have to plug is Elegies: A Song Cycle, by the wondrously gifted New York composer William Finn, best known for Falsettos, of several years ago, and the still-running huge hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

What could be more potentially depressing and even boring than a cycle of songs about dying, death, AIDS and yes, 9/11?

One of the songs is called “Looking Up” – meaning looking up at the empty space where once stood the Twin Towers of lower Manhattan , and it just may break your heart.

But how wrong you would be.

I am not familiar with the Acting Up Stage Theatre Company – now in its third year – but now that I’ve seen what they can accomplish, I’m just sick that I’ve missed any earlier productions.

The voice – and the acting – of Thom Allison, Barbara Barsky, Steven Gallagher, Eliza-Jane Scott, and Michael Strathmore are among the finest I’ve encountered in four decades of reviewing.

And those songs, those songs – those elegies!

“Life has infinite joys,” sings one about death and dying, and lines like “Beauty and pleasure is all we can hope to understand” will break your heart time and time again. When a dying mother visits and sings about the beloved street that she lived on years earlier, raising her talented son – the composer and lyricist – the n her son sings “When the Earth Stopped Turning,” containing the lines “Why not restart the day? / Make like it never happened,” anyone who has ever buried a loved one will be both thankful as well as moved to tears.

Sobs could be heard throughout the Berkeley Street Theatre. Each song is like an Alice Munro short story – the highest of compliments. This song cycle provided some of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in musical theater.


A unique kind of eulogy (February 21, 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...

(February 22, 2006)
Paul Isaacs

**** (out of 5)

As the rotting guy on the crucifix said, we should always look on the bright side of life. And Elegies, William Finn's autobiographical song cycle about death and the departed, is anything but miserable. The songs in Elegies commemorate the passing of, among many others, Finn's mother, Finn's dogs, some friends from the New York theatrical world, a businessman at the World Trade Centre on Sept. 11 and a Korean family who ran a vegetable market near the playwright's old apartment. Death, Elegies seems to be saying, has a little of the sublime about it – but much more of the ridiculous.

...Acting Up Stage's interpretation is both accessible and intimate, capably performed and sung by all involved, with minimal recourse to musical kitsch...

john & jen (February 2006)
Jeniva Berger

The rarely explored relationship between siblings is beautifully captured in this chamber musical by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald... Under Michael Jones' direction, there's nothing that takes away from the strong nucleus of the show: the strength of filial ties that can bind us throughout our lives.

Kyle Blair, who charmed us as Jack in last Stratford's production of Sondheim's Into the Woods, is wide-eyed, vulnerable, sometimes petulant as young John, then angry when he feels his sister has deserted him, and indignant when she questions his patriotism. Also playing Jen's teenaged son John, Blair is in great voice and it rings out through the upper level theatre of the Walmer Theatre Centre like holiday chimes.

As good as Blair is, it is Stephanie Roth who captivates, from the young Jen in charge, to the hippy escapee, to the guilt of the bereft older sister who feels she never understood her brother's feelings. Roth can sing us through a raft of emotions just by sitting still. There are no real memorable tunes, but the lyrics are powerful. Roth has one great number, The Road Ends Here, that stands out because of its heartrending familiarity. Sung after she realizes that she has to let her son find his own way in the world just as she did, I don't think that anyone could hear it without his or her own memories of growing up or growing older.

The Acting Up Theatre Company which has the admirable mandate of using contemporary musical theatre as a tool to draw younger audiences to musical theatre performances, has a winner with john & jen. But John and Jen's story is for anyone who has gone through living and loving and is all the wiser for it.

(February 2007)
Mark Andrew Lawrence

***** (out of 5)

The mark of any successful play or musical is found in the ability to provoke some sort of emotional response, be it laughter or tears or even anger.  All three responses are pretty much guaranteed in William Finn's Elegies – A Song Cycle being presented by Mitchell Marcus's Acting Up Stage Company at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs.

 Finn's songs celebrate life by remembering those we have lost with 18 numbers filled with every emotion imaginable. You will find yourself smiling through tears as you wend your way through these concise one-act plays, meeting characters and hearing their stories. The material is astonishingly powerful stuff, but here the performers elevate it. Each one offers a unique and distinct style, yet when they combine their voices, the result is heavenly.

 With a voice of liquid gold, Thom Allison proves once again why he is one of our leading musical theatre performers.  He can communicate as much with a raised eyebrow as with a whole soliloquy. Barbara Barsky whose entrancing belt carries both melody and lyrics so they land with the appropriate force matches him. Her "Infinite Joy" is filled with just that.

 Similarly, Steven Gallagher uses his powerful voice to great effect in numbers both comic and tragic, while Eliza-Jane Scott delivers some of the more comedic numbers without ever once sacrificing the underlying emotion.

 The real find in this production is a relatively new performer Michael Strathmore who displays an outstanding singing voice; combined with sensitive acting and charismatic good looks. His rendition of "When the Earth Stopped Turning" leaves not a dry eye in the house. This is a performer who will soon have a list of credits to rival those of his co-stars. 

 The entire cast are supported brilliantly by pianist Wayne Gwillim whose passionate playing underscores every emotion without ever once overpowering the singers who, in a refreshing change of pace perform without the aid of electronic amplification.

 When the material is this strong there is little need t decorate it with theatrical spectacle. Here it is effectively staged by Lezlie Wade against a backdrop of white curtains with chairs being whisked on and off by the performers as needed and aided by Paul Major's richly atmospheric lighting.

 Be prepared for the final moments of Elegies, which will serve as a reminder to cherish those around us while we may. The show lands with an emotional force rarely witnessed in theatre these days. It is production that should be at the top of everyone's "must-see" list.