ELEGIES: A SONG CYCLE by William Finn, directed by Lezlie Wade, with Thom Allison, Barbara Barsky, Steven Gallagher, Eliza-Jane Scott and Michael Strathmore. Presented by Acting Up at Berkeley Street Upstairs (26 Berkeley). In previews, opens tomorrow (Friday, February 16) and runs to March 3, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $21-$35. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Ask actor Thom Allison to de scribe Elegies: A Song Cycle and he sums it up with a laugh. "Songs for dead people," he deadpans.
"People look at you oddly when you say that, but really it's a celebration of the lives of people who've affected us."
Written by William Finn, Tony Award winner for Falsettos and 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Elegies is a celebration of people Finn loved and lost. First staged at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in 2003, the play explores the problem of loss in a post-9/11 world.
"It's not actually about 9/11," says veteran musical theatre performer Allison (Outrageous, Rent). "It's inspired by that kind of huge loss combined with the death of Finn's mother."
In 18 stories told in song, Finn acts as a medium, resurrecting everyone from his famous friend Joseph Papp, to colleagues, family members and even his dogs. "It's all told in William Finn's voice," says Allison. "People keep coming back in song, and it's like you get to know these people as friends, have a little tea and some cookies with them. It's really quite beautiful."
Although the stories are highly personal, the songs are universally accessible. Allison rapturously calls this Finn's colloquial ear. "I didn't try to memorize the lyrics, I just suddenly realized I knew them."
Allison appreciates the way song cycles represent the rainbow of a writer's emotions. "It's about being a colour. Each song represents a colour of the author and how that human being sees the world."
In the end, you leave the theatre feeling the joy, not the sorrow, says Allison.
"The ending's not the story," goes a line from the finale.
"It doesn't make you feel sad that all these people are gone," says Allison, "but rather joyful that they were there in the first place."