Washington City Paper Review: ELEGIES

ELEGIES by William Finn. Photo: Cameron Whitman Photography
The Simple Joy of Keegan Theatre’s Elegies

Keegan Theatre’s Elegies is an elegant challenge to the genre of musical theater. William Finn (A New Brain, Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) provides music and lyrics for this contemporary endeavor, but Elegies is not a “musical” in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s more accurately described as a song cycle. In more than 20 stand-alone numbers, Christina A. Coakley’s direction and Josh Cleveland’s musical direction present a simple but timely reflection on love, loss, and everything in between.

A song cycle is also more frequently associated with the vocal talent of the performers, and thus features complex harmonies, and challenging solos. Keegan Theatre certainly delivers on this front. All six performers are well-equipped to tackle the music, and tactfully demonstrate their vocal prowess.  John Loughney and DeJeanette Horne command the stage with sincerity and respect. Their performances range from comically upbeat numbers to melodic memory ballads, all of which feel dedicated to those who died of AIDS. These two performers particularly tapped into the essence and personality of the composer himself.

Katie McManus and Brigid Wallace are similarly gifted singers who frequently perform duets and charm audiences with lilting and elegiac numbers. Harrison Smith, however, is the clear scene-stealer of this production. Yet, it is actually his penultimate duet with McManus, titled “14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts,” in which he is most captivating. This song, performed by McManus and Smith as mother and son, is an emotional turning point of the production. The already moving number is so well performed that it perfectly sets up the audience for a teary and cathartic finale that brings us into the new millennium.

Elegies is episodic, much as the highs and lows of everyday life are. And the show’s evocative projections by Jeremy Bennett onto Matthew J. Keenan’s minimalist set help tie together a deeply moving and surprisingly personal experience for the audience. In a production that showcases musical talent and ambition, the final “Goodbye” of the performance returns to a recognizable, but simple musical scale. This cursory moment confirms that, in the world of these songs, learning to cope with loss for the first time can have the instructional impact of learning to sing.