The mark of any successful play or musical is found in the ability to provoke some sort of emotional response, be it laughter or tears or even anger. All three responses are pretty much guaranteed in William Finn's Elegies – A Song Cycle being presented by Mitchell Marcus's Acting Up Stage Company at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs.
Finn's songs celebrate life by remembering those we have lost with 18 numbers filled with every emotion imaginable. You will find yourself smiling through tears as you wend your way through these concise one-act plays, meeting characters and hearing their stories. The material is astonishingly powerful stuff, but here the performers elevate it. Each one offers a unique and distinct style, yet when they combine their voices, the result is heavenly.
With a voice of liquid gold, Thom Allison proves once again why he is one of our leading musical theatre performers. He can communicate as much with a raised eyebrow as with a whole soliloquy. Barbara Barsky whose entrancing belt carries both melody and lyrics so they land with the appropriate force matches him. Her "Infinite Joy" is filled with just that.
Similarly, Steven Gallagher uses his powerful voice to great effect in numbers both comic and tragic, while Eliza-Jane Scott delivers some of the more comedic numbers without ever once sacrificing the underlying emotion.
The real find in this production is a relatively new performer Michael Strathmore who displays an outstanding singing voice; combined with sensitive acting and charismatic good looks. His rendition of "When the Earth Stopped Turning" leaves not a dry eye in the house. This is a performer who will soon have a list of credits to rival those of his co-stars.
The entire cast are supported brilliantly by pianist Wayne Gwillim whose passionate playing underscores every emotion without ever once overpowering the singers who, in a refreshing change of pace perform without the aid of electronic amplification.
When the material is this strong there is little need t decorate it with theatrical spectacle. Here it is effectively staged by Lezlie Wade against a backdrop of white curtains with chairs being whisked on and off by the performers as needed and aided by Paul Major's richly atmospheric lighting.
Be prepared for the final moments of Elegies, which will serve as a reminder to cherish those around us while we may. The show lands with an emotional force rarely witnessed in theatre these days. It is production that should be at the top of everyone's "must-see" list.
Elegies continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs until March 3. Performances are at 8 PM Wednesdays, through Saturdays with 2 PM matinees on Saturdays. Visit www.elegiesasongcycle.com or call (416) 368-3110.