With the success of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” William Finn is at last finding a larger audience for his work, which has too long been relegated to downtown venues. Now newbies can join devoted fans in a satisfying revue that is as funny, smart and passionate as the composer’s own music.
“Make Me a Song” is receiving its world preem at Hartford’s TheaterWorks, which launched last summer’s “Ella” (Fitzgerald) evening, now getting multiple regional plays. This time out helmer Rob Ruggiero is simply sticking to the score, ably assisted by four appealing performers, one engaging pianist and bright musical direction from Michael Morris. The result is a “teeny tiny” show that’s as big, boisterous and life-loving as its subject.
Keeping things personal by having material sung without amplification at the small theater, the revue beautifully reflects Finn’s intimate joys. His songs — 30 are presented here — are best served up close and personal, where his delicious sweet and sour, itchy-bitchy words can be savored. With their inherent theatricality, specificity and vernacular power, however, the songs also call for something more than cabaret, and Ruggiero and company deliver the goods.
Beyond the music, the composer’s presence is felt in a number of ways in the show. A blue neon rendition of Finn’s head remains looming upstage like the great Oz. Show opens with Adam Heller as Finn’s stand-in arriving onstage to dispense instructions about shutting off cell phones, etc. Then the composer’s own voice from a recording of a 2001 Joe’s Pub one-nighter starts the revue with the show’s title tune before Heller takes over in real time. Tune preps aud with Finn’s composing creed, mood swings and wild rhymes (who else would match “ukulele” and “this Israeli”?)
The rest of the cast arrive with “Heart and Music” (from “A New Brain”), which shows how Finn also can go straight to the heart with an infectious melody and words not just to delight in but to live by.
Revue is a mix of songs from familiar musicals and shows in development as well as a few tunes recently written. “Hitchhiking Across America,” from an abandoned show of the same name, is a wondrous Jack Kerouac road ramble. “I’d Rather Be Sailing” takes a bumper sticker and turns it into an exquisite ode. Both numbers are simply and stunningly sung by Joe Cassidy.
Heller shows his comic character chops in “Republicans,” here presented — and edited slightly — as a musical running gag, and in “How Marvin Eats His Breakfast” (with a nice helmer hat tip to James Lapine’s rolling-chair staging). Heller achieves one of show’s high spots with “When the Earth Stopped Turning,” a song of unbearable loss and love written after the death of the composer’s mother.
Sally Wilfert’s warm soprano brings out the best in “I Have Found” (from the now-in-limbo project “The Royal Family of Broadway”). She also nails the hysterically funny and loving “Passover” (from “Elegies,” Finn’s song cycle tribute to some dearly departed). Sandy Binion brings the right toughness to “All Fall Down,” Finn’s Weill-like number from “Romance in Hard Times.” She’s also effective in “That’s Enough for Me,” a pre-natal lullaby that’s as pure as a prayer.
Numbers from Finn’s most notable pre-“Bee” show, “Falsettos,” are held back until the second-act opener, then grouped into a well edited and acted “Falsettos Suite.” The collection revisits the show’s protagonist, Marvin, his friends, family and lover, who “live and die fortissimo.” Singing and staging of one of Finn’s most gorgeous songs, “Unlikely Lovers,” is a soaring heart-tug of the highest order.
A few numbers miss their potential. “Dear Reader,” an amusing number between a novelist and her at-first page-turning and later disinterested reader, goes on well past its peak. “Only One,” Finn’s homage to a demanding teacher, is played a little too much for laughs. And “Stupid Things I Won’t Do” (another great number from “Royal Family”) is such a set piece that minus a seasoned dame of a certain age, it lacks the intended effect. In fact, revue could do well with an additional older performer to bring more authenticity to some of the songs with parental or tough-broad perspectives.
But overall, this is a terrific vehicle through which auds can further discover a unique American voice that speaks their language.