Acting Up Stage’s revival of Elegies: A Song Cycle is welcome if only because it allows us to get intimate with Thom Allison. The magnetic actor-singer, who has lit up the Shaw Festival main stage in recent seasons – rocking the boat in Guys and Dolls, hitting all the right notes in Ragtime – shows us his subtler side in this chamber work, presented in the Daniels Spectrum’s 120-seat Aki Studio Theatre.
Elegies, for five singers and piano, is intimate in more than just size. American composer William Finn’s 20-song celebration of lives lived mostly pays tribute to his deceased friends and loved ones. It premiered in 2003 and is informed both by the North American AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s, and by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Acting Up first produced it in 2007 to considerable success and has reassembled most of its original cast – under original directors Lezlie Wade (stage) and Wayne Gwillim (music) – for this belated encore.
That includes, along with Allison, Barbara Barsky, Steven Gallagher and Eliza-Jane Scott, joined by likable young newcomer Joel Gomez. All are solid performers who get their chance to shine, but it’s Allison who impresses most – in part because, as the sardonic voice of Finn himself, he has almost all the best songs.
Finn, whose landmark musical Falsettos was staged by Acting Up last season, is a songwriter in the Stephen Sondheim vein – he’s at his most original when he’s being specific. Sure, Finn can write skillful ballads full of fine sentiments that’ll choke you up, but it’s the highly personal numbers – witty, quizzical, bluntly honest – that convey the most complex emotions.
So we have Allison-as-Finn remembering a late fellow composer, the “unfashionable” Jack Eric Williams, and brooding on his lack of recognition even as he jokes about his massive appetite. Or memorializing his partner’s ex-lover, “a sophisticated Pole named Bolek,” in a song (Venice) that freely admits Finn’s mixed feelings about the man. Allison is the perfect match for these shifting meditations. At once “manly” (as Finn would put it) and impish, he capers nimbly through their sinuous lyrics, smoothly negotiating their every turn in mood. At one point he even does a delicious impersonation of gay icon Quentin Crisp.
The epitome of these personal recollections, however, isn’t sung by Allison, but by Barsky and Gomez. They make a touching pair as Finn’s elderly mother and kid brother, in a song about a drive through the old neighbourhood called 14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts. As lovingly detailed as its title suggests, it’s an eloquent homage to the oft-maligned suburban idyll.
But if Elegies showcases Finn at his best, it also sometimes displays him at his worst. One can forgive his silly but affectionate ode to New York theatre giant Joe Papp, but not the awful Fred – a wincingly bad comic ditty about a moronic chicken farmer. And Dear Reader, an attempt at a humorous dialogue between the needy artist and the fickle audience member, falls flat.
You’re likely to forget those follies, however, by the time the show reaches its quietly powerful climax. Goodbye/Boom Boom juxtaposes an endearingly rumpled Gallagher, as a man trapped in the World Trade Center, sending a heart-rending goodbye message to his wife (a poignant Scott), while she tries to cope with the tragedy. In Wade’s dramatic staging, it ends with sheets of white paper fluttering down upon the singers, evoking one of the strange images from that horrific day. But the songs had me thinking, instead, of the devastated loved ones of the passengers on Flight MH370, trying to comprehend their loss. So much for this show being dated.
Then again, 9/11, like AIDS, is simply the historical context for Finn’s song cycle. He isn’t concerned with the cause of death, or as Gallagher’s doomed New Yorker puts it, “the ending’s not the story.” Elegies pulses with the wonder and delight of being alive, even if that also means grappling with the sadness of mortality.