The Friday night performance of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens by Music Theatre of Madison was heartrending, cathartic and at times hilarious. Inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, itself a tremendous monument to the victims of the AIDS pandemic, the show's 44 performers paid tribute to those who died from the disease by recounting their stories. The production runs through Jan. 19 at the Bartell Theatre.
I expected that this show's mood to fall somewhere between sentimental and downright depressing, and I was unsure whether I would be able to enjoy a musical that might force me to confront my own mortality. But once the show got underway, I realized the performance was quite nuanced.
I was not at all prepared for the transcendent atmosphere that illuminated the theater, revealing the hope and humanity woven throughout the stories of those who lived with AIDS. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and circumstances that the musical presented: gay men of all ages, nurses, grandmothers, teenagers, children, businesswomen, housewives, prostitutes, drug addicts and Vietnam veterans. Some struggled with social stigmas, others with medical difficulties, family losses or betrayals by loved ones. Some lived life vivaciously, some faced death courageously, and some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was very impressed with the entire performance. The acting in particular were emotive and inspired. The most poignant monologue was that of a young girl, perhaps six, whose mother was addicted to crack and contracted AIDS. The little girl was born with the disease. With no father around, the child was left to die alone in an AIDS ward after her mother passed away.
Another moving portrait was of a nurse who worked in an AIDS ward. The day she was about to quit, when "all her tears dried up," an AIDS-afflicted patient had a seizure while she was giving him an injection, and she was poked with the needle. She contracted the virus and died in the same ward she worked in.
All of the stories weren't about the ravages of the illness, though. One involved a young, infected gay couple who nursed each other and wanted to be buried together. The parents of one man wouldn't allow it and buried him on their family plot. The other man's sister, a lawyer, had to sue the parents to extricate his remains.
Music added to the show's emotional impact, though not as much as I had hoped. The the singers sang beautifully, but I was not particularly fond of the music itself. The melodies weren't particularly memorable, and at times, the song lyrics employed clichés that didn't create the same pathos as the monologues.
In the end, the stories captured in Elegies stand as a living testament and reminder of the human capacity for compassion, love, understanding and acceptance, even in the face of death. A portion of the show's proceeds will be donated to AIDS Network of Madison.