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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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StageQ's William Finn revue Make Me a Song is funny, touching
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(Clockwise from top left) Ken Kusiak, Bruce Wheeler, Robert Goderich, Nicole Riege and Lisa Spierer in StageQ's <i>Make Me a Song</i>.
(Clockwise from top left) Ken Kusiak, Bruce Wheeler, Robert Goderich, Nicole Riege and Lisa Spierer in StageQ's Make Me a Song.

In 2006, the Washington Post called William Finn "the composer laureate of loss." Famous for shows like A New Brain, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Falsettos (for which he won a Tony Award in 1992), Finn is an intensely personal writer, tackling issues such as death, fatherhood, cancer and the experience of being gay, Jewish and terrible at baseball. Make Me A Song is Finn's 2007 Off-Broadway revue, drawing tunes from some of his most beloved musicals. Friday night marked the show's Midwestern premiere, produced by StageQ at the Bartell Theatre.

The show opens on a sparsely furnished stage. Bruce Wheeler, who is both a performer and the show's musical director, is playing a light number on the piano. He's quickly, and seamlessly, replaced by pianist Kenneth Kusiak, who accompanies the remainder of the show with just the right amiable-but-wry quality we'd seek in our neighborhood haunt's piano man.

Wheeler opens the show with the revue's titular number, "Make Me A Song," a broad, almost campy number that on Friday left Wheeler sounding tight and self-conscious. But as the show built, Wheeler relaxed into the role, and by "Unlikely Lovers" in the second act, I was mesmerized by his performance. His rendition of "When The Earth Stopped Turning" brought tears to my eyes.

Robert Goderich's is the strongest voice in the cast, and his first solo number, "Hitchhiking Across America," is one of the show's high points. When he sings about "all the cars that passed [him] by," he is singing about so much more than a ride to the coast.

Nicole Riege brings a great presence to the stage, particularly in "Only One," a timely and poignant song about the joy and trials of being a teacher. Lisa Spierer is a joy to watch, with a sweet and soaring voice and wonderful comedic timing. I wasn't the only person dabbing my eyes during her showstopper "Anytime (I Am There)," a heartbreaking song about the death of a friend.

Revues are always a little hard to pull off. The songs weren't written to be strung together, and creating an overarching narrative can feel disingenuous. Luckily, director Tara Ayres doesn't really try. Instead, the actors create the sense of being friends, which is story enough. The only real weakness of the show is the costumes, which could have been a helpful way to convey a change in character between songs, but instead look like something a singer might wear at a choral concert.

Make Me A Song is funny, touching and full of tunes that will be stuck in your head the next morning. But as light-hearted as the show is, it examines life as it is, not just as we'd like it to be. In a moving number from Falsettos, Goderich sings: "We laugh, we fumble, we take it day by day. What more can I say?" That pretty much sums it up.

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