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a signature performance

Last night Jeff and I went to see William Finn’s Elegies: A Song Cycle at Signature Theatre here in Arlington. It was a simple but very well-performed and powerful production of two dozen songs Finn (best known for his Falsettos musicals on Broadway) wrote to memorialize the dead and dying people (and, in one case, pets) in his life.

The Washington Post provided a terrific review last month. Rather than trying to improve upon it, I’ll just quote some sections that particularly resonated with my own experience of the production:

Easily one of the high points of the season, Signature Theatre’s “Elegies” is, in a word, heavenly. Performed to perfection by a gifted, seamlessly assembled quintet, William Finn’s cycle of songs about death and dying transcends a gloomy subject with the healing power of wit. If any human attribute offers consolation, it’s talent.

…”Elegies” is a tapestry threaded with sentiment, but never of the cheap variety. Finn’s idiosyncratic lyrics, which loop and twist over the rambling melody lines like curls of smoke, see to that. …

Signature’s trademark garage space has been stripped bare for the production, the elegance confined to the presence of a baby grand piano; artfully handled by Jon Kalbfleisch, it is the singers’ only accompaniment, and all they really need.

[Director Joe] Calarco keeps the embroidery simple. James Kronzer’s set is the mere idea of one: a door frame, a few bolts of fabric. Chris Lee’s mood-enhancing lighting paints the stage in brilliant stripes and shadows. The monochromatic costumes, a stylish eggshell-and-cream wardrobe by Anne Kennedy, provide a satisfying counterpoint for the broader palette of color in Finn’s music and the actors’ voices.

The five performers display extraordinary control over their material, and they quickly establish a winning rapport. There is the vague suggestion of a tight unit being formed, a family organized around grief. At the opening of the show, each of the singers is frozen in a spotlight, clutching a cherished photo. By the evening’s end, the memories inspired by those snapshots will have all but brought their subjects back to life.

On a level of technical achievement alone, “Elegies” offers some of the loveliest vocalizing on a Washington stage in quite a while. The head-turning cast is all doing top-tier work. …

Death, it must be reported, becomes them all, just as intimations of mortality seem to bring out the best in Finn. It’s strange to say, but this melodic trip to the cemetery gates leaves you feeling swell. Dearly departed, indeed.

The staging really was perfect in its simplicity. It was amazing how the stark industrial cube of the Signature’s space evoked, with only a single door and a few chairs, all the spaces and settings of the songs—a hospital waiting room, a hospital bed, a small suburban house, a funeral home, a theater (within a theater), and more. Occasionally, there was also some simultaneously understated yet suitably dramatic and unexpected use of the vertical aspect of the space.

And the performers simply were wonderful. Stylistically each very different, and well-suited for their individual solos, yet they also were remarkably able to blend into pairs, trios, a quintet of the whole. They very aptly projected a sense that they’d known and loved not only the people about whom they were singing and memorializing, but each other—and even us—all their lives. I was really quite touched.

The program, performed without an intermission, runs a little more than an hour and a half, and continues through May 9. Several days Signature has offered half-price tickets via Ticket Place; two weeks ago we couldn’t take advantage of that deal because the show sold out by the time Jeff got to Ticket Place, but yesterday he was able to get the half-price tickets. Less than half the theatre actually was occupied last night; in a way, though, that just enhanced the sense of poignancy and intimacy this show fosters.


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» Songs of remembrance from Rebel Prince
Elegies: A Song Cycle, by William Finn (Falsettos), is a collection of personal, musical reflections on death and loss, by turns poignant, sad, witty, funny. We saw it performed last night at nearby Signature Theatre, and quite enjoyed it. Kudos... [Read More]


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