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A free-standing door opens almost as soon as the lights come up at the Signature Theatre, and a flurry of balloons blows in. They’re mostly white or clear, and as they skitter around an open stage to the seeming surprise of five photo-swapping mourners, they serve notice that William Finn’s Elegies: A Song Cycle is going to be more party than wake.
Not that this vibrant musical evening won’t center, as its title suggests, on loss and leave-taking—it even hits a few notes that could reasonably be described as melancholy. But so much of Elegies is bracing and celebratory that the title seems a bit odd in retrospect. Finn introduces us to authors who leap from pages (“Dear reader,” screams one, as she commits hara-kiri with a ballpoint pen) and impresarios who light up stages (“Joe Papp/Never took crap”), and because the songs they sing are so often perky and bright, it’s hard to process the notion that we’re bidding them farewell, rather than simply encountering them as we would any other theatrical characters.
Elegies drops quite a few real names in the 90-minute course of its 25 songs. In a briskly amusing patter number called “Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving,” we meet not just AIDS activist Mark Thalen, but also a whole slew of his friends, including the folks who created the 1986 film Parting Glances. In the quieter but no less clever “Jack Eric Williams,” we’re introduced to the singer-songwriter who played the Beadle in the original Sweeney Todd. In “14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts,” the author’s mom puts in an appearance, waxing affirmative even as her health wanes.
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These and perhaps a dozen other people who have figured prominently in Finn’s life, and a bit less prominently in the cultural life of Manhattan, are brought to life in lyrics that are uncommonly clever about making listeners feel hugely in the know. Signature’s program has one-sentence bios for a few names that may sound only vaguely familiar, but studying up before the show starts is hardly necessary. The show’s full-voiced, chameleonic cast paints the portraits indelibly enough that no one’s going to have any trouble keeping up. And with Finn’s lyrics parsing death with literary finesse (“Nothing left to win, nothing more to lose”) even subsidiary characters—a friend of a friend, for instance, who asks on her deathbed for a song to remind her children that “I am there, anytime”—loom as large as the celebrities. I’ve no idea who’s being referred to in the country-western ode to Fred, who had a way with chickens, but as backup singers cluck their way through an aviary tribute, he becomes at least as substantial as actor Steve Buscemi, who’s referenced in another ditty.
It helps, of course, that the director is commanding four local stars and a newcomer who seems poised to become one. Divas Donna Migliaccio and Sherri L. Edelen reinforce their status as musical-comedy goddesses by belting hymns to autocratic teachers and Passover festivities, then dimming their wattage to play a matched pair of fading moms. Will Gartshore, ordinarily a romantic lead, brings a ditzy earnestness to Finn’s offbeat paeans to chickens and puppies, and Michael Sharp stands in for the author with admirable restraint in several of the evening’s more heartfelt ballads. And with all these veterans doing what we know they can do, backed by the reliable piano stylings of Jon Kalbfleisch, the evening’s big discovery is Larry D. Hylton, whose crystal-clear tenor is as sharp as his natty stage presence. When their mostly unamplified voices blend to bring Finn’s showbizzy sound alive, they fill the theater with a genuinely joyful noise.
But the evening is more than a concert. It’s a series of narratives in song, and it’s the specificity of the sentiments being expressed and the lived-in quality of the characterizations that stick with you. For that reason, the show falters a tad when the roar of a jetliner signals a shift toward the general at evening’s end. It makes sense that a song cycle called Elegies (and first produced in New York in 2002) would address the collapse of the World Trade Center; it makes sense that an audience situated less than two miles from the Pentagon would connect with that day’s events two years later. Still, though what’s on stage may be a singular wife watching her TV in shock, as a singular husband calls home from the Trade Center’s 95th floor, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the audience is being asked to feel for people in the plural, to conjure up too much of the incident from its collective memory. Not coincidentally, Finn’s lyrics, which have thus far been evocative about expressing a seemingly inexpressible mixture of exaltation and grief, turn to la-la-las as if words are suddenly inadequate. Finn’s music can be achingly lovely, but his gifts as a lyricist are also considerable, and simply abandoning them in the face of a tragedy that has been broadly experienced seems a bit of a cop-out.
That said, nothing about the evening’s conclusion in any way diminishes the effectiveness of what’s gone before. Those self-propelled balloons aren’t the only trick Joe Calarco’s staging has up its sleeve. Watch carefully as a few white rose petals sprinkled on a grave inspire a stagewide floral blizzard, or an umbrella, unfurled on the word “word,” reminds us that lyrics are being handled with uncommon delicacy. At times, Chris Lee’s splintered spotlights, dancing Japanese lanterns, and washes of emotive color are very nearly a show in themselves; as are those balloons, whether scudding around the floor or rising to the rafters on waves of emotion.
Claudia Allen’s Unspoken Prayers also centers on a family’s loss: Sara, the youngest of its three daughters, fails to come home after a high-school-Christmas-pageant rehearsal. The play’s early stretches chronicle how the family pulls together to cope with her disappearance. Then, once her body is found and her 16-year-old murderer clapped in jail, the author’s attention turns to the forces pulling the family apart—most notably, firmly held differences over whether to push for the death penalty. Dad (Stephen Patrick Martin) wants vengeance, older sister Becca (Karen Novack) urges mercy, and Mom (Caren Anton) is on the fence.
Allen’s evocation of a family in torment is sensitively handled by the Horizons Theatre, with what isn’t quite being articulated (“I need my daughters, all of…both of them”) sometimes registering as strongly as what is. Intriguingly, because the playwright brings clearheaded, 15-year-old Sara (Sarah Fischer) back onstage as characters remember her, she ends up seeming a more forceful presence after she dies than she was while still alive and playing video games. Pity she can’t actually participate in the debate that occupies the other characters for the play’s second half. If she were screaming for vengeance, her father’s position would seem considerably stronger. As things stand, with the program notes and a guest speaker from the ACLU both pointing out the rarity—and presumed barbarity—of the death penalty for minors under 17, the evening feels so weighted against capital punishment that the debate is pretty much over before it begins.
The Hand Chapel’s open, bright auditorium, with its white walls and blond wood flooring, is less than ideal as a theatrical space, and by creating a setting that looks good in it when the lights are up, directors Leslie Jacobson and Vanessa Thomas have created additional design problems for themselves. The gauzy white backdrop curtains and white slipcovers make quick blackouts impossible, so scenes that ought to flow briskly into each other must instead fade as Roy Barber’s somber music plays and characters rearrange furniture more or less in full view. Still, the performances are all capable, and the troupe’s dedication to a theater of ideas is well-served by postshow discussions with experts. At the Friday show, the entire audience stayed to hear what the Capital Punishment Project administrator for the ACLU had to say. CP