Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn

[responsivevoice_button voice=”US English Male” buttontext=”Listen to Review”]
Directed by Christopher Pazdernik

Musical Direction by Micky York

Produced by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre

Playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago

An Eclectic Collection from Song Cycles

William Finn is one of the most accomplished living Broadway composers, and therefore, making a revue of his songs is a reasonable proposition. However, while the Golden Age Broadway composers such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter normally wrote songs without any context, and mid-late-century figures such as Stephen Sondheim wrote songs that were highly entertaining in their own right, William Finn’s modern chamber operettas and song cycles are dependent on the whole of their presentation for emotional impact. It’s hard to determine which excerpts, exactly, would even comprise a “greatest hits” collection from the author of Elegies and Falsettos, in the way a Sondheim fan could easily select “Being Alive,” “Comedy Tonight,” and “Johanna” from among Sondheim’s diverse array of musicals as all conjuring a specific mood on their own. Director Christopher Pazdernik has assembled a charming quartet of actors for the revue produced by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, but with only a piano for accompaniment, the songs sound unvaried.

David Belew. Photos by Jeff Dull.

The revue’s warm atmosphere is established by David Belew’s rendition of “Mister, Make Me a Song,” and followed up with by the whole company singing “Heart and Music,” which is, ironically, about the need to make songs meaningful for them to be memorable. Max DeTogne, a tenor who in a very short time has become an outstanding presence on Chicago’s non-Equity stages, delivers the first knock-out of the night with “Hitchhiking Across America,” a humorous gay coming-of-age story which introduces the importance of the late baby boomer gay experience to Finn’s body of work. We are also treated to multiple accounts by Belew of the feelings of moral self-disgust which arise from laying a Republican.

Max DeTogne and David Belew

Late in the show, Katherine Condit delivers a touching rendition of “That’s Enough for Me,” a love song, after having delivered the darkly comic song “Only One” early in the show, which is about a less than inspiring literature teacher’s defensiveness. It’s a nice instance of the songs being used to complement each other on either side of the extended selections from Falsettos, which includes such classics as “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” alongside ruminations on losing a lover to AIDS. The fourth ensemble member, Jessica Fisher, does best with comic songs (which largely revolve around Jewish life), and it’s during ensemble pieces that Pazdernik provides serviceable choreography.

Max DeTogne, David Belew, Jessica Fisher, and Katherine L. Condit.

The performers all have the appropriate cheeriness for a revue and engage with the audience directly at a few points in the show. Musical director and pianist Micky York guides the cast quickly through the songs without ever lagging in energy, and occasionally he even joins in the singing. The problem is simply that, as a William Finn revue, these individual songs aren’t already famous enough to rouse most people’s excitement, or distinct enough to make lasting first impressions. The selections do not include anything from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or Finn’s recent adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine. Nor do most of them grant an opportunity for outstanding singing—they’re designed to flow into each other, instead of being showstoppers, and those which are funny just bring a slight smile, instead of a big laugh. Fans of Finn will enjoy the show, of course, as will people who simply want to see a different kind of music.

Somewhat Recommended

Jacob Davis

3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed June 18, 2016

For more information, see Make Me a Song’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport, Chicago. Tickets are $25-30; to order, call 773-935-6860 or visit electic-theatre.com. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through July 10, with two Saturday matinees in July. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.