When voices make
the unbearable breathtakingly beautiful:
by Drew Rowsome
Photos by Joanna Akyol
An evening composed entirely of 11 o'clock numbers could be exhausting and full of grandstanding, but the incredibly talented cast of Elegies: A Song Cycle are so fine-tuned and spectacularly-voiced that their subtle power turns heartbreak and tears into magic and inspiration. Composer William Finn's songs are tuneful and artfully structured for maximum emotional impact. Each character is delineated with precision and the words and melodies mesh to create real people dealing with individual grief and memories. Each character takes a journey within the song and transports the audience with them. While the songs are specifically from the viewpoint of a gay Jewish man who is enmeshed in New York City's theatre scene, the emotions are universal and breathtakingly moving.
What makes this production of Elegies particularly thrilling is the intimacy. The voices - devoid of amplification, reverb or Auto-Tune - are so vulnerable and naked that Elegies acquires a death-defying flavour that pulls the audience to the edges of their seats. When a singer nails a note, and each of them get at least a few, and fills the room with glorious sound, it resonates beyond with the circus-like thrill of the success of conquering the usual limitations of the human body. But this is not cheap theatrics or vocal pyrotechnics, each thrill is grounded in an emotional context and played just to the edge of reality, giving a power that serves the song rather than the ego.
Eliza-Jane Scott benefits the most from this approach and two of her songs take the audience from comedy to heartbreak to absolute devastation without any evident manipulation. She connects directly with the audience, lays her heart and psyche bare, and is absolutely spellbinding. Barbara Barsky wields an elegant soprano voice with a compelling ease that conjures characters out of thin air. "Infinite Joy" should be, if it isn't already, a cabaret standard but Barsky subsumes her voice and presence to the song and creates power out of simplicity - she simply stands, sells the song with deceptive ease, and is utterly riveting.
The through line, such as it is, is provided by Thom Allison whose evocation of "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving" reappears to climax with "Venice" and feels like the most brilliant musical about the devastation of AIDS that was never completed by Finn. Allison is almost too charming and rich-voiced to be contained (as the audience filed out, the group ahead of me enthused, "That Thom Allison, wow, he just has it all." I concur) and he kicks off Elegies with a simple raised eyebrow that, with one tiny but stage-filling star power gesture, draws the audience in and lets us know that we are in the hands of professionals - we are going to go through an emotional wringer but there will be laughs along the way and he will keep us safe.
The laughs along the way occur mainly at the mid-point and while the comic relief is necessary it is a bit jarring. These songs set up Scott and Joel Gomez as comedians which makes their emotional numbers that follow all the more surprising and strong. Gomez grows from an unfortunate - though it does have the best sight gag in the show - country and western-inflected number to "My Dogs" that balances humour and pathos in a way that induces both tears and helpless laughter.
Though Elegies opens with a brief metaphor that comes to fruition, or frustration, at the end, the first number (eerily cribbing from "Over the Rainbow") falls to Steven Gallagher who states the central theme, "Open 24 hours, from dawn to dawn, and one day they were gone," in an understated and rueful way. Gallagher becomes a powerhouse near the end when he and Scott sing in counterpoint. They are extraordinarily moving and if Elegies had ended there it would be a masterpiece. Unfortunately the loose ends have to be tied up and the specific horrors of 9/11 are expanded into a statement on the collective human condition. Ten years ago when Acting Up Stage first produced Elegies, 9/11 may have been fresh enough in our scarred psyches to resonate, but so much has happened since - and in so many places beyond the confines of New York and the US - that one specific tragedy becomes tragically individual and can't make the leap to the universal.
Barsky comes to the rescue and the cast harmonizes and sends the audience into the night - fully sated with melody and memory - moved and filled with the wonder that is life.
Elegies: A Song Cycle continues until Sun, April 13 at Daniel's Spectrum, 585 Dundas St E. actingupstage.com