The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) Studio Series is where local theatergoers can often find wonderful productions of lesser-known shows at a great price - free! Past productions have included Rags, In Trousers, Myths & Hymns, Lucky Stiff, Song & Dance, and Hello Again, just to name a few. Opening their 2004-2005 Studio Series is a highly polished, emotionally performed presentation of William Finn's recent Off-Broadway offering Elegies: A Song Cycle.
Elegies is a celebration and remembrance of the lives of those people, animals and relationships we have loved that have died or are dying. Though the details of the story songs presented are specific (a bit too much at times) to composer/lyricist Finn, the themes and feelings attached to them are universal.
A 90-minute intermissionless show about death could be quite depressing, but Mr. Finn's style and approach evoke just the opposite reaction in most cases. Even in addressing the impending or remembered final fate of loved ones, these songs are often life affirming, uplifting and, believe it or not, tastefully humorous. As in his other musicals such as Falsettos (for which he won Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book) and A New Brain, Finn graces Elegies with his unique voice, one that is original and eccentric, yet highly accessible. Intelligent, tender and witty lyrics are carefully combined with delightfully interesting melodies and beautiful harmonies. Whether it is the memory of good times with relatives no longer with us ("Passover"), a comical tune about past pets ("My Dogs"), the shock of the 9/11 events ("Saying My Goodbyes"/"Boom Boom") or the brave goodbye of a dying school teacher ("Only One"), Elegies is heartwarming, tear-inducing storytelling through song at its best.
CCM consistently produces some of the most talented and well-prepared student performers to be found. Despite a lack of life experience to fully comprehend all of the emotions and situations contained in Finn's song cycle, the five young performers of Elegies do well in conveying the pain, joy, regret and love contained therein. Philip Drennen shows off a strong singing voice and provides lively versions of "Mister Choi and Madame G" and "Joe Papp." Val Williams displays appropriate maturity, detailed characterization and an impressive vocal range in songs such as "Infinite Joy," "Only One" and "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts." With the show's least interesting material, Thad Wilson nevertheless communicates an excellent theatrical authenticity and professional stage presence throughout. Laura Hall does well in switching from childhood exuberance to adult sorrow in "Passover" and in expressing hope for surviving loved ones in "Anytime (I Am There)." Gabriel Ford's textured singing and manic interpretation of "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving," "Venice" and "Jack Eric Williams" is quite reminiscent of Finn's personal performance delivery and a good fit for the material.
Director Aubrey Berg maintains an apt tone of reverence and optimism. There are smooth transitions between songs, though the interaction among the players seems slightly forced at times. Mr. Berg also has incorporated slide projections of those described in the songs with very effective results. Except for a few small props, the slides serve as the sole scenic design element of the show. Costumes in shades of brown, and evoking several modern time periods, are attractive and suitable as supplied by Cathy Christensen. The lighting design by Eric Cimini does well in defining space and setting the proper mood. Danny Percefull provides first-rate, spirited piano accompaniment and musical direction for the show.
Elegies is an example of why William Finn is one of today's top, if under-appreciated, musical theater songwriters. He tackles a difficult subject and provides winning results. The same can be said of CCM. They present great productions of challenging shows. With Elegies, strong performances, design and direction add up to a worthwhile theater experience. The next Studio Series musical will be Side Show, presented March 10 - 12, 2005. Elegies: A Song Cycle was performed at CCM from October 21 - 23, 2004.