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.
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