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by Rich See

And we'd fight to be the first out of the car, having come this far. Having come so far for this feast, this feast of no yeast. And the matzoh balls are so hard when you cut them, they just fly. Why? Passover.
---Michael Sharp, Will Gartshore, Donna Migliaccio, Larry D. Hylton and Sherri L. Edelen during the song "Passover"

Michael Sharp, Will Gartshore, Donna Migliaccio, Larry D. Hylton and Sherri L. Edelen
M. Sharp, W. Gartshore, D. Migliaccio, L. D. Hylton and S. L. Edelen
(Photo: Carol Pratt)

"The world is good you said, enjoy its highs you said, the summer flies you said, so make a parade of every moment," sings Will Gartshore during "When The Earth Stopped Turning", which comes towards the end of Signature Theatre's newest offering, Elegies: A Song Cycle. And those four lines describe playwright William Finn's gentle musical about love, life, and loss -- a parade of songs and stories that stream by, stirring our own bittersweet memories. Finn, who also wrote Falsettos and A New Brain is known for his complex musical style and witty lyrics. And Elegies, which Signature is premiering in the Washington area, is a heart felt collection of songs about the deaths of various people he has known, including some of his closest friends and family members. And although the show is all about death and dying, it's no sad trip down memory lane. Never morbid, Elegies is touching, funny, and ultimately buoyant; floating on the spirits of those who inhabit its songs.

Consisting of eighteen diverse musical moments, the styles and tones range throughout the musical from the unabashedly optimistic -- "Life has infinite, infinite joys!" -- to the hilariously irreverent -- "His ears felt like a rug, I bought him for a dollar, I bathed him in the sink, each day the dog got sicker, I gave him milk to drink, I also gave him liquor." At times Finn weaves an intricate web of inter-related songs, introducing characters in one section and then re-visiting them later in another. Ultimately though, each piece has one thing in common, to celebrate the humanity of the individuals the songs are about. His ode to actress and friend Peggy Hewitt sums it up best -- "look at the joy, look at the joy on her face as she emotes, maybe she doesn't hit all the notes, but look at the joy, look at the joy on her face."

With a reduced rehearsal schedule due to Elegies sudden addition to Signature's season lineup (it replaces the previously announced The Next Gig), director Joe Calarco has developed a winning combination of actors and designers. He's pushed his performers to give a great deal of respect to each individual number and not go for the sentimental tear jerk, which would be easy to do with the material. Even at the beginning as the actors stare at photos of their departed, the mood is one of anticipation not woeful sentimentality. Calarco's dark, spare stage showcases the songs as the stars and thus the show flows on a current of emotion, like a celebratory wake.

James Kronzer's set design is delightfully simple, featuring an empty stage except for a brown wooden door and a piano. The doorway is an analogy for the departing and as it initially opens, balloons, representing the memories of the departed, fill up the stage. Even the glowing green exit sign, which can be seen over the doorway and is there for emergency purposes, sort of adds to the mood and seems to be saying "Exit stage right to After Life."

Chris Lee's lighting is equally excellent and often features single colors, which alternately wash the stage in reds, blues, yellows, and oranges. During the opening number he's bathed the walls in dappled light, reminiscent of sunlight streaming through a forest. And in the middle of "Mister Choi & Madame G", wonderful Chinese lanterns drop from the ceiling to light up the stage. The effect is quite beautiful.

The cast includes Sherri L. Edelen, Will Gartshore, Larry D. Hylton, Donna Migliaccio, Michael Sharp and Jon Kalbfleisch on piano. Mr. Kalbfleisch's music direction and piano playing is lively and keeps the show moving along, the simple piano accompaniment being the perfect form to highlight the vocalists.

Miss Edelen shines in the touching "Anytime (I Am There)" about a mother's last message to her daughter. She also touches all the heart strings with the emotional "Boom Boom," the song whose refrain will stay in your head as you leave the theatre. In this piece she is a wife watching the events of 9-11 unfold on TV as her husband calls to say good bye from his office in the World Trade Center.

Will Gartshore manages some of the more humorous numbers with subtle finesse. In "The Ballad of Jack Eric Williams (And Other 3-Named Composers)" he sings "caught a chicken disease...called cock-a-doodle-do...he's a moron...with a steel plate in his head..." And in the pet lovers song "My Dogs" he ponders why it's only the dog he hates that lives forever.

Mr. Hylton shows great range especially in his duet of "Goodbye" and "Boom Boom" with Ms. Edelen. His husband's farewell is sung with an acceptance to his fate that immediately transports you to those upper skyscraper floors.

Donna Migliaccio shines as the English teacher who demands precision in "Only One". Her rendition is sung with such precision, it isn't hard to imagine most of her students disliking her. She also showcases her vocal talents in the stirring pieces "Infinite Joy" and "Looking Up."

Michael Sharp lights up the stage in the connected songs "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving," "Monica & Mark" and "Venice" -- all songs that feature recurring friends whose deaths are inter-twined in the playwright's personal life.

William Finn has written a show that sees how our fragility and vulnerability can be our greatest strengths and he celebrates this realization. Signature Theatre has taken Mr. Finn's work and created a wonderful musical feast. So go, enjoy, and remember to take a hanky; because by the end, there isn't a dry eye in the house.

by William Finn
Directed by Joe Calarco
with Sherri L. Edelen, Will Gartshore, Larry D. Hylton, Donna Migliaccio, Michael Sharp,and Jon Kalbfleisch
Musical Direction: Jon Kalbfleisch
Set Design: James Kronzer
Lighting Design: Chris Lee
Costume Design: Anne Kennedy
Sound Design: Tony Angelini
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission
Signature Theatre, 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington
Telephone: 703-218-6500
TUE - WED @7:30, THU - SAT @8, SUN @2 & 7; $28 - $42
Opening 03/23/04, closing 05/09/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 03/28/04 performance

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