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Make Me a Song

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Make Me a Song
Sally Wilfert, Darren R. Cohen, Adam Heller, Sandy Binion, and D.B. Bonds.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Does anyone today write a love song quite the way William Finn does? The composer and lyricist of such musicals as Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and A New Brain is singularly unsatisfied with easy sentiment in his lyrics, and unwilling to embrace the simplistic strains of modern pop in his tunes. His writings about any powerful bond between people, whether men and women, men and men, or even fathers and sons, so plumb uniquely American ideals that you can’t help but take grand exception at any rumors of the musical theatre’s imminent demise.

The new Finn revue at New World Stages, Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn, soars whenever it releases Finn’s inner romantic into its eternal home, the theater. Whenever a member of the thrilling four-person cast (Sandy Binion, D.B. Bonds, Adam Heller, and Sally Wilfert), assembled by conceiver and director Rob Ruggiero, steps forth to sing of their innermost feelings, remaining unmoved is one of the greater challenges of the season as it currently stands.

But the rest of the time, the show - which premiered at TheaterWorks in Hartford last year - has a harder time finding its footing. Ruggiero may have provided a vehicle for a 90-minute basking in some of the most sweeping show songs of the last 30 years, but he hasn’t dispensed any glue for the purposes of uniting the ragtag collection of songs that fill out the bill.

It’s unclear, for example, what - other than cheap laughs - is gained by Heller’s four-part political plaint “Republicans,” which climaxes in a surreal “la-la-la” sing-along. Or how site-specific numbers from Songs of Innocence and Experience can be expected to maintain their inspirational punch outside the halls of the Williams College theater they were commissioned to inaugurate. Or why Ruggiero considered a breakneck medley of 10 songs from Falsettos the most appropriate tribute to Finn’s best-known and most influential work, making that melodic and sobering portrait of a family in transition look and sound like the most unappealing stage saga of the past two decades.

Make Me a Song
Adam Heller, Sandy Binion, D.B. Bonds, and Sally Wilfert.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The best revues guide the viewer from one theme to the next, establishing connections that make the disparate components of a body of work adhere to their own tightly constructed, logical narrative. Aside from the composer, there is no common thread here to be discerned. Ruggiero’s attempts to inject theatricality seldom prove more creative than fusing A New Brain’s misty ballad “Sailing” with the In Trousers gospel rouser “Set Those Sails,” as though their sharing of a single word linked them in cadence, intention, or perspective. At times like these, he elicits the worst, not the best, from the songs he’s chosen. (The spirited musical director, Darren R. Cohen, is not to be faulted.)

But when Ruggiero allows the music and lyrics to speak plainly for themselves, his interference is intercepted. This is most obvious in the evening’s penultimate quartet of solos, in which each performer is allowed an unadorned moment at the center of the spotlight: Binion gets the hushaby “That’s Enough for Me” from Romance in Hard Times; Bonds and Heller deliver a one-two punch to the gut of the masculine mystique with their back-to-back renditions of “I Went Fishing With My Dad” and “When the Earth Stopped Turning”; and Wilfert is the picture of passionate optimism in “Anytime (I Am There),” sung by a woman in her final days who is determined those she leaves behind will not be left alone.

It’s no coincidence that that number, utterly bereft of vocal or musical filigree, is the show’s sole genuine showstopper. It speaks so baldly to the hopes and fears at the core of our existence, that it seems to alight not on the ear, the mind, or the heart, but in the soul itself. Finn’s talent for presenting life and death as elements of the human equation that are as inviolable as love makes his voice one of the most daring and honest to be found in the theatre today. Too often, Make Me a Song just doesn’t let it ring out loudly or strongly enough.


Make Me a Song
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge