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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Elegies: A Song Cycle
at Philadelphia Theatre Company

William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle is a heartfelt, often moving celebration of life. In songs about people who have departed this world, Finn writes about what made these people special, and illustrates why, as one of his songs puts it, "life has infinite joys."

Joe Calarco's inventive staging for the Philadelphia Theatre Company brings out the best in these songs, heightening their theatrical elements with fascinating touches. Yet in the end, the best efforts of Calarco and his talented cast cannot overcome the repetitive, limited nature of the songs themselves.

This production stars two performers from the original 2003 Lincoln Center concert staging (Michael Rupert and Keith Byron Kirk), plus three performers from a production that Calarco staged at the Signature Theatre in Virginia (Sherri L. Edelen, Will Gartshore and Donna Migliaccio). Accompanied by onstage pianist Kimberly Grigsby, these five actors sing Finn's stories of lives tragically lost and happily remembered.

Despite the fact that all the songs are about dead people, Elegies is not a depressing show. Finn's lyrics have bite and wit, and always emphasize happiness, not mourning. "Joe Papp/ never took crap/ Even from Robert Moses," sing the men as a twenty-foot high Al Hirschfeld caricature of Papp appears behind them. At a moment like that, one doesn't so much miss Papp as revel in the fact that such a theatrical maverick once walked the earth.

One of the great strengths of Finn's lyrics is the way he uses plain, seemingly offhand comments that reveal a lot about character in just a few words: "I had a little dog/His name was on his collar" or "Mark the lawyer wore flannel/He comes from Wisconsin." When a son says that the thing he misses about his late mother is "the overwhelming smell of powder in the air," you realize that Finn is not your average songwriter; he's an artist with the keen eye for detail of a great novelist.

Calarco's ever-moving staging makes Elegies fascinating to watch. The song "Peggy Hewitt & Misty Del Giorno" is one of the best examples of how Calarco's direction gives the songs new import. "One thing I can say about Peggy Hewitt/She was incredibly loved and she knew it," begins the song, as the actors assemble chairs to resemble a row of seats in a theater. Playing audience members, they look rapturously at an imaginary stage and sing of Peggy, "She doesn't hit all the notes/ But look at the joy, look at the joy." By the end of the song, the "audience members" have left their seats and are standing, looking down, as if surrounding a casket, still singing "Look at the joy, look at the joy." It's a neat trick, and it amplifies and expands the meaning of Finn's song,

Other examples of impressive stagecraft are Chinese lanterns slowly descending during "Mister Choi & Madame G"; white drapes starkly falling from the sky during the 9/11 remembrance "Goodbye/Boom Boom"; and balloons and opening doors that recur throughout the show, always seeming to signify hope and possibility.

Sounds extraordinary, right? And yet, with so much talent on the stage, with so much meaning in the songs, and with so much passion and invention evident in the staging, why did I leave Elegies feeling vaguely disappointed?

In part it's because Finn's music, as creative as it is, gets repetitive and annoying over the course of a ninety-minute show. Finn's musical trademarks include a pulsing bassline that creates a sense of movement, plus sudden changes in tempo, meter and key. At first that's exciting and delightful; in a song like "Jack Eric Williams," it effectively creates a multi-faceted portrait of a complex person. But Finn overuses these stylistic touches, letting them get in the way of creating fully-developed musical ideas. "Passover," a leaden attempt at comedy, becomes confusing and frantic due to Finn's technique. "Venice," about a foreign visitor, has so many jerky transitions that it becomes as irritating as the person the song is about.

"Venice" prompted eight people to walk out in evident frustration at the performance I attended. That's regrettable but understandable; by that time, an hour into the show, Finn had made his musical and lyrical points over and over, and while he had more stories to tell, he had run out of things to say.

Rupert (one of Broadway's most powerful and underrated singers) and Gartshore (a versatile tenor with great intensity) make the best impressions onstage. Kirk has a warm, friendly presence onstage that really helps sell his songs. The women don't fare as well; Edelen and Migliaccio often seem strident and screechy, and their often-pained expressions don't help. However, Edelen makes up for it with a tender and touching rendition of "Anytime (I am there)." Migliaccio's smoky alto seems a bad choice for some of her songs; during the hopeful, melodic finale "Looking Up" the music should soar, but her hesitant upper register keeps the music grounded.

Philadelphia Theatre Company has staged Elegies without amplification, a rare choice for a modern musical, and a good one. Unfortunately, Kirk, Migliaccio and Edelen sometimes get drowned out by Grigsby's piano, especially when they're near the back of the stage. (I missed more than half the words in the Edelen/Migliaccio duet "Dear Reader.")

There's a lot in this production of Elegies that is rewarding. Much of what's best in it comes from Joe Calarco, a director with a deep understanding of his material and exciting ideas on how to present it. And William Finn's songs - often moving, often exciting and always sincere - raise the bar high. Unfortunately, that bar is so high that not even Finn himself can always reach it. And I'm not sure that any songwriter, even one as gifted as Finn, could come up with enough variety to sustain interest in a full evening of songs that are all on one subject.

Grieving may be a necessary process, but after ninety minutes of Finn's Elegies, you'll be ready to move on with your life.

Elegies: A Song Cycle runs through Sunday, April 17 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street. Ticket prices range from $30 to $45, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com, or by visiting the box office.

Elegies: A Song Cycle
Written by William Finn
Directed by Joe Calarco
Music Direction ... Kimberly Grigsby
Set Design ... James Kronzer
Costume Design ... Anne Kennedy
Lighting Design ... Chris Lee
Sound Design ... Tony Angelini
Stage Manager ... Rachel R. Bush
Casting ... Mark Simon, C.S.A.
Dramaturg ... Warren Hoffman

CAST:
Sherri L. Edelen
Will Gartshore
Keith Byron Kirk
Michael Rupert
Donna Migliaccio

- Tim Dunleavy


-- Tim Dunleavy



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