A neon portrait of its composer-lyricist smiles down on Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn, now playing in WaterTower Theatre's studio space. Bald, bearded and over 50, Finn isn't a pretty man in the flesh, much less in neon light, but he sure writes pretty tunes. In this 28-song revue originally patched together in 2006 from some of Finn's best shows, including March of the Falsettos and A New Brain, four singers and one pianist—at WaterTower that's the indefatigable Mark Mullino—offer a sardonic yet often wistful look at the man and his music.

Finn's songs, whatever show they're from, are almost always about his complicated life. He writes about growing up gay and Jewish, about losing loved ones to illness and breakups, and about almost losing his own life to a rare form of brain cancer (the event that inspired A New Brain). Art and beauty can heal, writes Finn again and again.

Telling life-affirming stories from an Upper West Side (of Manhattan) perspective is Finn's forte. But he can also be deliciously mean. Here are the opening bars of the four-part running joke called "Republicans": "I had never met a Republican/Till I went to college/The mother of a classmate said she hated Bella Abzug/And I said 'Are you a Republican?'/And she just laughed and I said, 'Bitch!'"

Erica Peterman, Paul J. Williams, Mark Mullino, Amy Stevenson and Christopher J. Deaton make beautiful music in Make Me a Song.
Erica Peterman, Paul J. Williams, Mark Mullino, Amy Stevenson and Christopher J. Deaton make beautiful music in Make Me a Song.

Notice how nothing in that rhymes. With so many budding Broadway composers striving for Stephen Sondheim's tricky internal poetry, Finn prefers to invent his own syncopated rhythms and chatty lyrics. His shows have a freshness that redefines what musical theater can sound like. Too bad there aren't any numbers from Finn's biggest Broadway hit, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a comedy celebrating childhood ambition and polysyllabic vocabulary words in music much more hummable than anything else he's done.

Performed in cabaret style, Make Me a Song keeps it mostly quiet and casual with occasional bursts of vocal fireworks. Directors James Lemons and Megan Kelly Bates set a leisurely pace early on, having singers Christopher J. Deaton, Erica Peterman, Amy Stevenson and Paul J. Williams slouch on and off the stage in jeans and sweaters as though they just stopped by to sing a little with friends before heading home for a light snack and a Project Runway marathon. The relaxed postures are seductive, drawing the audience into the flow. When Peterman sings "Passover," Finn's funny ode to "this feast of no yeast," there's a point where she shuts up and the crowd jumps right in to finish the chorus. Paul J. Williams gets to go all Sophie Tucker with the emphatic "Stupid Things I Won't Do." Stevenson, usually a power belter, turns positively winsome with "Change," a ballad about homelessness.

There's no storyline to Make Me a Song, but there is a structure to the lineup that sets the mood. The first act celebrates Finn's kooky humor. In "Billy's Laws of Genetics," he lays out his "facts of science" to prove that "the bad trait will always predominate." Low IQ, laziness and lousy aesthetics get passed along to the next generation. And why, he asks, "is the smart son always the gay son?"

The second act gets serious, with a suite of nine tunes from the Falsetto trilogy. The most touching song comes late in the evening with Deaton's nicely understated rendering of "I Went Fishing With My Dad," a tribute to life's too-rare Kodak moments. The cast comes together at the end for "Song of Innocence and Experience," blending their un-miked voices in beautiful close harmony to bring Make Me a Song to a full-throated Finn-ish.

Just more than a week into its planned four-weekend run at the Deep Ellum Hub Theater, Dennis Lehane's Coronado, the first production by director Harry Reinwald's Essential Stage, is essentially kaput. Before showtime on the evening of November 1, the eight actors mutinied. The cast went on before a sparse crowd that night, but afterward decided not to return for the Sunday matinee or do any more performances. According to one of the cast members, who asked for anonymity, Reinwald had rained expletives on the actors backstage and in the lobby. "I've done theater in Dallas for a long time," said the source, "but I've never heard or seen anything like that. The women in the cast were reduced to tears." Reinwald denies using profanity or calling anyone names and says he will not pay the actors because "they did not make it to the end of the run, and they're not entitled to be paid anything." (Hub owner Tim Shane e-mailed that he was not there when the incident occurred.)

Maybe The Hub, which rents out its no-frills acting space for more than $1000 a week, should call in an exorcist. With the charm, décor and odor of an abandoned monkey house, the place feels hexed. I've never seen anything worth recommending there. Every visit is fraught with dread, apparently for good reason. It's the only theater in town that includes in its printed programs a list of safety tips for getting in and out of the building without being mugged. Among Hub management's advisories for how to deal with the vagrants who lurk outside the doors: Don't offer them food; don't give them money; don't sell or give them cigarettes or alcohol. There are also warnings about car towing and theft.

The boldface rules of survival at The Hub have that "Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball" effect of injecting fear into what should be a pleasant experience. At this venue, when the lights go down and the house manager invites the audience to sit back, relax and enjoy the show, it sounds like a dare.

It's a tough time for theaters right now, and not just the one that smells like a serial killer's crawlspace. The economic squeeze is making it hard for customers to justify spending $15 to $60 to see a play. On the last night of its short run, Coronado drew only about a dozen patrons to The Hub and most of those were relatives or spouses of the actors. Near-empty houses have greeted recent performances of Leonard's Car at the spiffy new Bishop Arts Theater Center in Oak Cliff and A Soldier's Play in DeSoto. Whole rows went unsold for weekend performances at Theatre Three of The Light in the Piazza. WaterTower's studio was only half full for the opening of Make Me a Song; just 15 tickets were sold for the first Sunday matinee.

At Dallas Theater Center, ticket sales are about even with last year's run of Glengarry Glen Ross, according to artistic director Kevin Moriarty. But he says the current drama by Tracey Scott Wilson, a co-production with New York City's Public Theater, isn't the hot-selling success he'd hoped for. Says Moriarty, "Maybe opening a play called The Good Negro in Dallas, Texas, wasn't such a good idea."

Comedies are selling better. Closing weekend performances of Uptown Players' drag farce Legends were over-sold, with folding chairs set up in the aisles to accommodate the overflow. The Mummy's Claw, a for-all-ages mystery-comedy at Dallas Children's Theater, is filling the seats. And at Dallas' only for-profit playhouse, Pocket Sandwich Theatre, the latest popcorn-tosser, Sweeney Todd: Fiend of Fleet Street, is killing at the box office.

It's a cutthroat business—particularly in hard times when folks are looking for something to laugh about.

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