Review: Elegies: A Song Cycle (Acting Up Stage Company)

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Toronto’s Acting Up Stage presents a re-imagined production of William Finn’s Elegies: A Song Cycle.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary season Acting Up Stage Company is presenting a “reimagined” remount of their hit 2007 production of Elegies: A Song Cycle. Written by William Finn, Elegies is a series of standalone songs written in memory of the composer’s friends and family. Finn includes songs about friends who had passed away from AIDS, his mother, his dogs, and the victims of the World Trade Centre collapse.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the overall exercise sounds a bit morose but you shouldn’t be put off by the heavy subject matter; for the most part the composer carefully avoids over-the-top sentimentality and the songs aren’t as treacly as you might expect. In fact much of the show consists of lighthearted, fond remembrances and brims with optimism.

A show comprised of mostly unrelated songs commemorating various idiosyncratic people from the composer’s life can easily come off as an exercise in self-indulgence but Finn has an undeniable gift for weaving compelling narratives in song. Elegies is theatre that focuses on the craft of songwriting but the overall success of the piece is also largely dependent on the presentation.

Finn’s songs are illustrated by director Lezlie Wade’s intimate and understated but efficient staging. Much of the cast from the original 2007 production has reunited; Canadian musical theatre stalwarts Thom Allison, Barbara Barsky, Steven Gallagher, and Eliza-Jane Scott are joined by emerging talent Joel Gomez for this turn. The sole musical accompaniment is provided by pianist John Hughes.

You’d expect a cast of this calibre and experience to really knock it out of the park but unfortunately I wasn’t completely wowed. On opening night the performances felt a bit cautious and tentative. It seemed to me as though the cast wasn’t really connecting with the material and as a result I sometimes struggled to engage with it as an audience member.

I thought the funny numbers worked best Allison, Gallagher and Gomez’s timing and delivery were spot-on in Joe Papp, a number about Finn’s theatre producer friend with a habit for rambling speech. Likewise, Barsky and Scott are deliciously quirky in their duet Dear Reader, an absurdist dialogue between an author and her reader via a novel.

Ironically, I thought the standout performance in the cast belonged to Joel Gomez; a recent graduate of the Musical Theatre Performance program at Sheridan College, he often outshone his more seasoned cast mates. Gomez goes for broke in Fred, a hilariously bizarre number that has something to do with roosters, and his conviction really pays off. Later he deftly pulls off the black humour in My Dogs, a number about the various dogs the composer has loved and lost.

It really wasn’t until near the end of the show, that I started to connect to the material emotionally. Barsky and Gomez’s measured performances on 14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts and When the Earth Stopped Turning, the songs Finn wrote about his mother’s death, are very moving.

And that’s the beauty of the song cycle; some numbers you’ll really connect with, others you won’t. The degree to which you’ll enjoy Elegies will be determined by how much of the show you can relate to.

Details:

  • Elegies: A Song Cycle is playing at the Daniels Spectrum, Aki Studio Theatre (585 Dundas Street East) until April 13, 2014
  • Shows run Tuesday-Saturday, 8PM; Saturday and Sunday, 2PM
  • Tickets $30.00 to $50.00 ($10 off for students and arts workers)
  • Tickets are available by phone 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.actingupstage.com

Photo of Eliza-Jane Scott, Thom Allison, Steven Gallagher, John Hughes, Joel Gomez by Joanna Akyol.