Keegan’s reassuring ‘Elegies’ reflects on joy, grief, and gratitude

At their best, William Finn's songs are candid snapshots of something that makes life worth living.

An elegy is “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” Elegies: A Song Cycle, now playing at Keegan Theatre, is a 90-minute collection of songs that do that same thing. You could call it a playlist of “infinite joys” (as one song is titled), grief, and gratitude.

Who hasn’t made a playlist for oneself or someone else in order to summon comfort and joy? Usually, though, the playlists we create pull together music from a variety of sources. In this case, they all come from a single (and singular) composer: William Finn. Elegies is a tribute to the composer’s experience of life and death in New York City. And the show is very New York–centric in a way that is reminiscent of some Woody Allen movies.

Katie McManus and Harrison Smith in ‘Elegies: A Song Cycle.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Finn’s lyrics articulate human frailty, terror, and hope with an undeniably American, late-decline-of-capitalism precision. His portraits of people accepting the need to learn to live with grief rather than trying to get over it are — well — reassuring. His work seems to be saying: this stuff is hard, and every human being is slogging through it with varying levels of grace. To make this statement heard and felt musically is no small achievement for a composer and no small gift for audiences.

At their best, his lyrics are like candid snapshots of an unnamable and easily overlooked thing that makes human life worth living, as in this:

Look at the joy on her face as she emotes
Maybe she doesn’t hit all the notes
But look at the joy on her face
She is in a place of light
—from “Peggy Hewitt & Mysty del Giorno”

Through the lyrics of these songs, Finn shares with us the people who constituted his social atom (“Mister Choi and Madame G,” “Monica and Mark”), the disasters (AIDS, the fall of the Twin Towers), the rituals (“Passover,” “Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving”), and the inescapable deaths (“14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts,” “The Ballad of Jack Eric Williams”).

Director Christina A. Coakley has put together a production that has many things going for it. The set (Matthew J. Keenan) is clean, simple, elegant, and versatile: a grand piano, six stools, one mysterious box. The entire stage space was framed by overlapping stage legs that acted as projection screens and as walls between rooms and streets.

John Loughney (with Josh Cleveland on piano) in ‘Elegies: A Song Cycle.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

When you enter the theater, the stage is a cloudy blue. The appearance of the stage shifts as, over the course of the performance, various colors, textures, locations (façade of a Manhattan apartment building, the Twin Towers), and documentary images (newspaper articles about the discovery of a virus of unknown origin among gay men) are projected. From time to time the performers would use their own personal screens and remote controls to project images onto them. During the song “My Dog,” images of dogs were sketched onto the screen while the singer sang about these pets and their deaths.

The music arrangements provided vibrant and varied settings for the songs and the performers. Music Director Josh Cleveland implemented those arrangements like somebody who knew what he was doing. Through almost 90 minutes of nonstop playing. Cleveland’s accompaniment pushed, prodded, and generally provided a confident and firm foundation for the performers.

Brigid Wallace in ‘Elegies: A Song Cycle.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The performers’ harmonies were lovely, and those well-balanced small chorus moments were always welcome when they arrived. Individually, the cast engaged boldly with the material. A presentation of elegies one after another does have the problem of tending to sound like the same song, and the same high point over and over. It’s a little like being in a memorial service. And sometimes applause may seem a little awkward or slow in coming. But then, this production offers us exactly what the definition of an elegy promises: a space for serious reflection. Set to music.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Elegies: A Song Cycle plays Thursdays to Sundays through November 22, 2022, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($55–$65, with discounts available for patrons under 25 and over 62), call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online. Discounted rush tickets are also available at the door starting one hour before showtime.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional but encouraged for all visitors. Keegan’s current Health and Safety Policies are here.

Harrison Smith, DeJeanette Horne, and John Loughney in ‘Elegies: A Song Cycle.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Elegies: A Song Cycle 
Written by William Finn
Directed by Christina A. Coakley
Music Director: Josh Cleveland

Musical Numbers
Looking Up Quintet
Mister Choi and Madame G.
Looking In
Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving
Only One
Joe Papp
Peggy Hewitt & Mysty Del Giorno
Infinite Joy
Jack Eric Williams
Elevator Transition
Dear Reader
Monica and Mark
Anytime (I Am There)
My Dogs
14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts
When the Earth Stopped Turning
Mark’s All-Male Thanksgiving Reprise
Saying My Goodbyes (Part I)
Boom Boom (Part I)
Saying Our Goodbyes (Part II)
Boom Boom (Part II)
Looking Up
Saying Our Goodbyes (Finale)

John Loughney (Ensemble), Harrison Smith (Ensemble), DeJeanette Horne (Ensemble), Ben Clark (Ensemble/Swing), Katie McManus (Ensemble), Brigid Wallace (Ensemble), Allison Fitzgerald (Swing), Chris Gillespie (Swing)

Creative and Production
Lighting Designer: Alberto Segarra
Projections Designer: Jeremy Bennet
Costume/Hair Designer: Shadia Hafiz
Assistant Director: Chris Gillespie
Resident Electrics Supervisor: Ben Harvey
Sound Designer/Engineer: Elliot Lanes
Resident Scenic Designer/Lead Carpenter: Matthew J. Keenan
Properties/Set Dressing Designer: Cindy Landrum Jacobs
Stage Manager: Gabrielle Busch
Technical Director: Josh Sticklin
Dramaturg/Production Manager: Colin Smith


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