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Make Me a Song

This carefully constructed and beautifully performed revue of William Finn's music gives its rich material its due. logo
Sandy Binion, Darren R. Cohen, D.B. Bonds, Sally Wilfert,
and Adam Heller in Make Me a Song
(© Carol Rosegg)
During a period when so many musical theater composers have been trying to emulate Stephen Sondheim, along comes the iconoclastic William Finn who not only marches to the beat of a different drummer, he provides the beat, as well. His rhythms, not to mention his melodies and lyrics, are so unique that you can identify them in an instant. Now, there is a new revue of his work called Make Me a Song at New World Stages, and serious theatergoers are all the richer for its arrival. It's a carefully constructed, stylishly directed (by Rob Ruggiero), and exceptionally well-cast production that gives Finn's rich material its due.

Finn's songs are composed with heat and heart. The heat comes from the intensity of his work; one might even say his songs are ferocious. The heart is something else again because, although he is in no way sentimental, the emotional content in Finn's work is simply overflowing. Nobody on Broadway writes with so much unabashed passion. What makes Finn truly great, however, is that he laces that passion with wit and a keen understanding of the human comedy. What truly distinguishes this revue is the chance to hear some lesser-known Finn songs. Yes, some of the composer's best known songs are missing from the revue, but it's the mark of this composer's output that everything here is worthy of inclusion.

A strong cast of four actors -- three of whom are holdovers from the original production at Hartford's Theatreworks -- gives the proper heft to Finn's lyrics. The unofficial leader of the cast is Adam Heller, who approximates Finn's own rough-hewn vocal style but with a more musical sound. A consummate actor, Heller is as funny and as poignant as the lyrics demand. Sandy Binion is impressive, as well, singing with a ferocity that perfectly suits Finn's style. Rounding out the cast are the excellent Sally Wilfert and D.B. Bonds (plus Darren R. Cohen on piano).

Ruggiero takes particular advantage of having such a fine cast, because their skills allow him to break a lot of rules that directors generally follow when putting together a revue. For instance, he allows the mood to go dark and atmospheric with a long series of ballads about death and dying, never trying to bump it up with an up-tempo funny song. It works.

Unfortunately, the revue gives short shrift to such niceties as set design (the set by Luke Hegel-Cantarella gives minimalism a bad name), and the neon image of Finn that hangs over the stage is a distraction and smacks of overkill. We don't need Finn's face; we're seeing his soul in the music.

And what a soul it is. "Passover" is ultimately heartbreaking. "You're Even Better Than You Think You Are" is wonderfully affirming. "I Went Fishing With My Dad" couldn't be more poignant. The list goes on. And so should this wonderful show.

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