By Colin Douglas
Make Me a Song is one of several revues or song suites by composer and lyricist William Finn. It features an array of music, borrowed mostly from his previous accoladed musicals, as well as a number of tunes from shows that have not yet been produced.
Finn, collaborating with book writer James Lapine, has won several Drama Desk Awards, as well as a few Tony Awards for his The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and earlier for Falsettos. This latter show is actually a composite of three of his former musicals: In Trousers, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. Also included in this revue are songs from Finn’s rarely-heard The Royal Family of Broadway, a musical based on the classic George Kaufman and Edna Ferber comedy, as well as Romance in Hard Times. There are a number of songs taken from Finn’s Off-Broadway musical, A New Brain, as well as a few from Elegies, his song cycle that eulogizes friends and lovers who’ve passed away.
Finn’s songs and musicals are primarily autobiographical. The composer’s works center around the Jewish experience in modern America, about being gay, as well as about family, illness, healing and loss. They’re thoughtful, universal, poignant ballads or fun, upbeat songs laced with humor, and they all come from the heart. Each of Finn’s songs is like a mini play or, at the very least, a musical monologue. There’s an emotional arc established in each song that rises toward the final moments and leaves the audience incredibly moved by merging a simplicity of word and melody.
Presented on a minimalist set designed by G. Max Maxin, the playing area of Studio 1 is backed by a crimson-draped proscenium stage, with a semicircle of wide steps leading down stage left, around the upright piano and to the floor. Director Christopher Pazdernik has staged his company of four talented actor/singers with style and a touch of choreography. Catherine Tantillo’s costumes are a variation on everyday wardrobe, perfectly chosen because this is a song cycle that celebrates everyday life.
Max DeTogne continues his ascent toward becoming one of Chicago’s finest young musical theatre actors. Having recently dazzled audiences in the title role of Theo Ubique’s Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as the lead in Refuge Theatre’s High Fidelity and as Che in Jedlicka’s Evita, DeTogne again stands out in this revue. Beginning with songs like his amusing “Hitchhiking Across America,” while displaying a homemade sign proclaiming I Like Boys, Max immediately wins over the audience with his boyish charm. He continues impressing with his honestly delivered, sensitive “You’re Even Better Than You Think You Are,” as well as the tear-inducing “I Went Fishing With My Dad.”
Jessica Lauren Fisher surprises with her musical talent, for those who’ve come to know her stage work primarily in Eclectic Productions like Spinning into Butter. She delights with her perfect rendition of “Passover,” brings a lump to the throat with her especially eloquent and understated “Anytime (I Am There)” and joins Max in a mashup of two beautiful songs: “I’d Rather Be Sailing” and “Set Those Sails.”
Having astonished audiences as Margaret White in Bailiwick’s recent Carrie: the Musical, as well as sporting a number of impressive credits from all over the country, Katherine L. Condit is a knockout in this production. Whether proclaiming her staunch pride as a no-nonsense teacher, in her performance of “Only One,” or blowing the audience away with songs like “Change,” “Trina’s Song” or “That’s Enough for Me,” Condit holds the audience in the palm of her hand. From the seldom-produced Romance in Hard Times, her stirring version of “All Fall Down” leaves patrons wanting even more.
David Below, Eclectic’s artistic director and known primarily for staging wonderful productions like Take Me Out, provides some comic moments with his musical series of “Republicans,” parts 1-4. He opens the show with “Mister, Make Me a Song” and delivers honest heartfelt feelings in his “When the Earth Stopped Turning.” But his best moment comes with Finn’s ode to serious theatrical actors, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do.” It’s the perfect song and just made for this stage director and performer.
Several ensemble numbers that impress are the early-on “Heart and Music,” followed by the comic “Billy’s Law-of-Genetics,” a touching story song called “The Baseball Game” and, a personal favorite, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”
This evening of moving melodies, a representative assortment of some of Finn’s finest songs, will most likely be fresh and new to most patrons. Certainly Finn’s work isn’t as familiar as Rodgers & Hammerstein or even Stephen Sondheim. However his rich, melodic music touches the audience as it digs into the heart and soul of what it means to be human. In Pazdernik’s skilled production, the songs are truly the stars of yet another fine production by Eclectic Theatre.
Eclectic Theatre Company presents “Make Me a Song,” through July 10 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago. Tickets are available by calling (773) 935-6875 or online here. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas may be read at theatreinchicago.com.