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Boston by Suzanne Bixby

Elegies: A Song Cycle

Also see Suzanne's review of Lizzie Borden: The Musical

SpeakEasy Stage Company's current offering is a funny, touching, soul-stirring production of William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle. Unlike the original production, which was done "concert style" on the set of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Lincoln Center last spring, director Paul Daigneault gives us a fully staged production.

The sets and lighting by Caleb Wertenbaker and Michael J. Eddy provide a backdrop of images to complement Finn's "stories in song" that both mourn and celebrate some of the people and things that have passed from his life.

Though each story is full of specifics, Finn reaches out to us in the telling of them. From Joe Papp to childhood pets, from his mother to actress Peggy Hewitt, from the Korean couple who ran the 24-hour deli on his corner to the architect mourning the loss of the twin towers, Finn touches us with how they touched him.

And Finn's quirky musical style - part Randy Newman, part Sondheim, part nothing you've ever heard before except in Finn's other highly personal work (In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, Falsettoland and A New Brain) - is in great hands here. With musical director Paul S. Katz on stage at a shiny black baby grand and no microphones anywhere (thankfully, The Last 5 Years experiment with amplified sound is behind us), this ensemble of SpeakEasy veterans delivers the goods, five singers who love to make music together, their voices artfully blending and soaring.

Elegies
Kerry Dowling, Michael Mendiola,
Leigh Barrett, Will McGarrahan
and Josť Delgado

For an evening of eulogies, things couldn't be more full of life. Jose Delgado scats in celebration of "Joe Papp," Michael Mendiola leads everyone in a chicken dance with "Fred" (one of two numbers not on the original cast album) and Will McGarrahan dons his charming Finn persona to tell us about "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving" and "The Ballad Of Jack Eric Williams (And Other 3-Named Composers)."

The ladies get to deliver the songs that were Finn's impetus for the whole project. Leigh Barrett represents his mother in "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" (sung with Michael) and "Infinite Joy" (also the title song on Finn's "Live at Joe's Pub" CD.)

And Kerry Dowling sings an astonishingly wonderful song that Finn wrote for a dying friend after first rejecting her request that one from Falsettos be sung at her funeral. "Anytime (I Am There)" says everything there is to say about how we stay connected to people who are gone from our lives - and how they stay connected to us. I am there each morning. I am there each fall. I am present without warning. And I'm watching it all... a mother sings to her two young daughters.

Over the course of the ninety minutes, a variety of chairs (nicely rounded up by the uncredited Sara Chase, I am told) accumulate in the playing space. Each gets carried on by a performer, is used for a brief, simple purpose and is then left as a visual representation of people in a life who are gone but still a presence.

Finn thought about calling the piece Looking Up, thinking that song best summed up what he was trying to say, but the overriding idea, I think, is to be found in "Goodbye/Boom Boom." In a phone message delivered from an office in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, a man tells his wife: Hey, just saying my goodbyes. The living was the prize. The ending's not the story. I'm saying my goodbyes.

Upcoming William Finn events in Boston on Saturday, May 15th:

As part of the 2004 "Birth of a Musical" festival sponsored by NOMTI, the New Opera and Musical Theater Initiative, Mr. Finn is scheduled to attend the 8pm performance of Elegies and participate in a "talk-back" with the audience after the performance.

His other activities that day include a Q&A at noon in the Studio Theatre at Suffolk University (free) and participation in a feedback panel following the 2pm performance of Chimes (a new work by Neal Hampton) in the Suffolk University C. Walsh Theatre ($10 in advance, $15 at the door.) Both venues are located at 55 Temple Street (behind the State House) and the box office there is (617) 572-8680. For more information about "Birth of a Musical." visit the NOMTI website at: www.nomti.org.

Elegies: A Song Cycle now through May 29th presented by SpeakEasy Stage Co. at the BCA Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. in Boston's South End. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 4pm & 8pm. Remaining Sunday performances are 3pm on May 23rd and 7pm on May 16th. Tickets are priced at $30.00 - $35.00 depending on the performance with a $5 discount for seniors. Student Rush is $15, one hour before curtain, subject to availability. The BCA box office phone is 617-426-2787 of purchase tickets via the SpeakEasy website.


Photo: Eric Levenson


Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Boston area.



- Suzanne Bixby



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