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Slightly Shakespearean: (l-r) Taylor-Williams and Taylor in The Tamer Tamed.

Sad Songs Say So Much
By James Yeara

Elegies: A Song Cycle

Music and lyrics by William Finn, directed by Rob Ruggiero

Barrington Stage Company, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, Mass., through Aug. 28

Tony Award-winning com- poser William Finn’s (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) opening performance of his new work, Elegies: A Song Cycle, at the restored Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, was the stuff of legend.

A fierce thunderstorm had knocked out power to half of Great Barrington, but the show went on without lights, without sound amplification, and with the wind whipping against the lobby door, the rain battering the roof, the thunder cracking overhead, the sirens howling and, bizarrely, a steam whistle sounding off at irregular intervals—as if some waterlogged production of Show Boat were going on in the building next door.

While opening-night audiences are notorious for being overstuffed with family, friends, students eager to glad-hand, and casts of other shows anxious to show their support, Sunday’s audience had available reasons to sit on their hands: Emergency lighting, while dramatic, isn’t suitable for song cycles; sitting wet in an un-air-conditioned theater with hundreds of damp, sweating people is uncomfortable; and the thunder, while romantic, couldn’t keep the beat for Elegies half as well as the barefoot pianist, Deborah Abramson, could. However, despite the reasons not to, the sold-out crowd enthusiastically applauded each and every one of the 19 songs in the 90-minute cycle, and gave William Finn, his spectacularly voiced cast of five (Bradford William Anderson, Sandy Binion, Romain Fruge, Andre Ward, and Sally Wilfert), and the forlorn lighting director, Mat t hew Richards, a standing ovation.

And why not? Elegies: A Song Cycle is brilliantly calculated to thrum the heartstrings of any audience. Who doesn’t know someone who has died? Who hasn’t said good-bye to a loved one? Who can’t remember the times spent together at family celebrations or friendly parties? Who has forgotten the wet-eyed look of that family canine long since gone to the dog run in the Great Be yond? This was a performance that had the audience in sniffles.

Finn’s songs celebrate the celebrity egos, the elite temperaments, and the occasional everyman—and everymom—who have populated his life. This is all done before a series of 10 photographs of blue skies and puffy clouds flown upstage, but director Rob Ruggiero keeps the focus on the singers. Each song was full-throated and so caressed with finesse by these Broadway veterans that sound amplification would have been superfluous.

In fact, to call these soaring songs “elegies” is a misnomer: None laments a death so much as each celebrates life. Of the 19 soaring songs, the paean to teachers, “Only One,” to James Goldman, “I Do, I Do, I Do,” and to omnipresence, “Anytime (I Am There),” stand on tiptoe above the others, due to the power of their singers and to an odd humbleness of spirit. When Sally Wilfert was in the middle of “Anytime (I Am There)” and power was miraculously restored, she gave that rarity of rarities in musical theater, an unplanned smile. This gave the song an extra sweetness.

Elegies: A Song Cycle, with its odes to Joe Papp and references to Quentin Crisp, Robert Moses and Peggy Hewitt, is a treatise on the science of the gesture, the calculation of how to manipulate a response efficiently, assuredly, and repeatedly: “Just saying our good-byes/The living was the surprise/The ending’s not the story/ I’m just saying my good-byes.” These were an aria of notes that soared, as if by force of voice meaning could be instilled, instead of emotions distilled. There’s a power in Elegies: A Song Cycle that is chilling to behold.

Ladies on Top

The Tamer Tamed

By John Fletcher, directed by Michael Burnet

Shakespeare & Company, Rose Footprint, through Aug. 27

Those who can’t get enough of The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare & Company’s Founders’ Theatre can stroll down the hill to the Rose Footprint theater tent (future site of the historically accurate reconstruction of the Rose Playhouse) and see a 70-minute production of John Fletcher’s 1611 sequel to Shakespeare’s play.

The fast-paced, robust, and acrobatic staging by director Michael Burnet makes the most of the theater’s ambiance, the cast’s abilities, and Fletcher’s slight play—said to have been written in attempt to gain Shakespeare’s attention. Fletcher did eventually collaborate on three plays with Shakespeare, and while the play makes for a nice curio when performed in repertoire with The Taming of the Shrew, its chief asset is to underscore Shakespeare’s theatrical genius.

The Tamer Tamed begins with Petruchio (Tom Wells) lamenting the death of “our dearly departed Kate” (represented upstage left by a nicely staged photo of Celia Madeoy, from the Founders’ Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew). The shrew-tamer Petruchio soon weds Maria (the excellent Catherine Taylor-Williams, star of last season’s Vita & Virginia), who conspires with her younger sister Livia (Julie Webster) and their cousin Bianca (Sarah Taylor), sister to the departed Kate, to tame their respective men by staging a variation on the Lysistrata sex strike.

In The Tamer Tamed, it works, the way to a man’s heart being through his genitalia. Director Burnet keeps this thin plot moving through some modern non sequiturs, most notably a mooing toy cow on wheels, a black-and-gold velvet codpiece with deep purple ribbons that shows up in the most unlikely places, some Xena: Warrior Princess-style yodeling from the sex strikers, and some outrageous accents during a world tour of the hot climes where servants are born. The three female leads are having lots of fun, and they share that with the audience, which is a welcome relief.

—James Yeara

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