- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

Need a good, cleansing cry? Bring your own Kleenex to Signature Theatre’s hauntingly beautiful production of William Finn’s “Elegies: A Song Cycle.”

Mr. Finn’s latest musical, a tender tribute to the people he has loved and lost over the years, confirms that there are few finer accolades in modern life than to have the brilliant, iconoclastic composer write a little something for your funeral.

A “little something” in Mr. Finn’s universe includes the breathtakingly poignant “Anytime,” sung with heartache and poise by Sherri Edelen, and the glibly funny memory song “Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving.” “Anytime,” a dead mother’s determined promise to be a constant presence in her young daughter’s life, is every bit as goose-bumpy as “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel.”

The composer, perhaps best known to Washington audiences for his musicals “A New Brain” (superbly staged at Studio last season) and “Falsettos,” has a way of being eccentric and nontraditional without resorting to ironic distance. His songs are full of heart and catchy melodies but are devoid of Broadway brass. Instead, his style is a melange of pop, soul, jazz, ballads and narrative, punctuated by oddball rhymes and structures. There’s a zippy neuroticism permeating his music, as if he is constantly taking his emotional temperature. In his hands, that’s a good thing.

“Elegies” is a sung-through piece without any dialogue. Director Joe Calarco threw this production together in less than six weeks, after the Jill Sobule musical “The Next Gig” was scrapped. His five actors — Miss Edelen, Will Gartshore, Larry D. Hylton, Donna Migliaccio and Michael Sharp — acquit themselves with polished, impassioned performances that never go over the top, which would have been all too easy given the show’s themes of love and loss. Especially admirable is Miss Migliaccio’s and Mr. Gartshore’s exquisite restraint in “14 Dwight Ave., Natwick, Massachusetts” and “When the Earth Stopped Turning,” dedicated to the composer’s formidable late mother.



If anyone could write songs about September 11 and not have you fleeing to the lobby, it is Mr. Finn. Just when you think you’ve gotten through “Elegies” safely without sounding like a wounded harp seal, out comes the sequence about the tragedy as expressed in the hushed simplicity of the songs “Boom Boom” and “Looking Up” — which deal with the everyday realities of answering machines, architects, cell phones and the pang of a familiar skyline forever altered.

Yet “Elegies” is not entirely a sob fest. “My Dog,” for example, could have been a morose inventory of former pets, but Mr. Finn’s take is refreshingly nutty because it acknowledges that some pooches were better than others. A country-western ditty named “Fred” is a paean to a “moron with a steel plate in his head who had a way with chickens” and features Miss Edelen and Miss Migliaccio as a chorus of head-pecking hens. A zany recounting of childhood Passovers boasts the lyric “This feast, this feast of no yeast,” while “Dear Reader” details the wickedly codependent relationship between a writer and a reader.

Owing to time constraints and the heightened feelings of the piece, Mr. Calarco keeps the sets uncomplicated — the stage is bare except for a door and chairs of various styles. There is also a persistent motif involving balloons, but the less said about that the better.

To Mr. Finn, loss adds up, whether it is a parent, a dear friend, or even the owners of the Korean deli across the street. Yet loss is not what “Elegies” is about; as one song says, “the living was the prize; the ending’s not the story.”

This glorious musical goes beyond mourning and looking back — it urges us to look up.

***1/2

WHAT: “Elegies: A Song Cycle” by William Finn

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through May 9.

TICKETS: $28 to $42

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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