Brigid Wallace in Elegies now playing at Keegan Theatre; Credit: Cameron Whitman

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Keegan Theatre’s Elegies is an elegant challenge to the genre of musical theater. William Finn (A New Brain, Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) provides music and lyrics for this contemporary endeavor, but Elegies is not a “musical” in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s more accurately described as a song cycle. In more than 20 stand-alone numbers, Christina A. Coakley’s direction and Josh Cleveland’s musical direction present a simple but timely reflection on love, loss, and everything in between.

But what exactly is a “song cycle” and how does it fit into contemporary musical theater more broadly? In 1927, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat introduced a phenomenon known as “musical theater.” This particular musical was the first to include songs deliberately intended to advance the plot of the play as a whole. The “song cycle” is a much older form and differs from the structure of a musical in that the songs may be connected by theme, but rarely by any sort of narrative. Primarily taking place in Manhattan, Elegies features personally reflective songs on childhood and parenting, coming of age in the New York theater scene, and grappling with the events of the 1980s AIDS epidemic and 9/11. There isn’t any sort of plot per se, but Finn’s songs reflect on what it means to be an artist and a writer amid so much loss. 

A song cycle is also more frequently associated with the vocal talent of the performers, and thus features complex harmonies, and challenging solos. Keegan Theatre certainly delivers on this front. All six performers are well-equipped to tackle the music, and tactfully demonstrate their vocal prowess. The cast of Elegies includes John Loughney, Katie McManus, Harrison Smith, Brigid Wallace, Ben Clark, and DeJeanette Horne. Allison Fitzgerald, and Chris Gillespie (also assistant directing) serve as understudies. Loughney and Horne command the stage with sincerity and respect. Their performances range from comically upbeat numbers to melodic memory ballads, all of which feel dedicated to those who died of AIDS. These two performers particularly tapped into the essence and personality of the composer himself.

McManus and Wallace are similarly gifted singers who frequently perform duets and charm audiences with lilting and elegiac numbers. Smith, however, is the clear scene-stealer of this production. Yet, it is actually his penultimate duet with McManus, titled “14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts,” in which he is most captivating. This song, performed by McManus and Smith as mother and son, is an emotional turning point of the production. The already moving number is so well performed that it perfectly sets up the audience for a teary and cathartic finale that brings us into the new millennium.

However, Elegies presented a particular challenge for its cast. The song cycle asks the actors to manifest not only a new character, but to enact a separate emotional journey with each musical number. Unlike in vaudeville or cabaret, which center comedy and entertainment (or in plot-based musical theater, which grants the characters scenes in which to develop), Finn’s text demands a new level of emotional rawness and commitment with every transition. The characters need to both grip the audience and meaningfully conclude their arc within each two- to three-minute solo. Given the rapid pace of this show, this becomes an impossible task. For this reason, despite stunning vocal performances, the production cannot quite summon the journeys of social recognition, character development, and plot fulfillment that many traditional and contemporary musicals can, but that may not be the point. 

Elegies is episodic, much as the highs and lows of everyday life are. And the show’s evocative projections by Jeremy Bennet onto Matthew J. Keenan’s minimalist set help tie together a deeply moving and surprisingly personal experience for the audience. In a production that showcases musical talent and ambition, the final “Goodbye” of the performance returns to a recognizable, but simple musical scale. This cursory moment confirms that, in the world of these songs, learning to cope with loss for the first time can have the instructional impact of learning to sing. 

Elegies, written by William Finn and directed by Christina A. Coakley, with musical direction by Josh Cleveland, runs through Nov. 20 at Keegan Theatre. keegantheatre.com. $55–$65.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct that Ben Clark is part of the full cast, not an understudy as previously reported.