WEPG presents an entertaining, educational 'Finale'
By Chuck Lavazzi
West End Players Guild's latest play is a somewhat ambitious endeavor that can be difficult to categorize in terms of comedy or drama, considering the marked difference in tone between the first and second acts. Still, "Finale" is an engaging look at famed opera composer Gioacchino Rossini and some of his most important relationships, with a friend and producer, with his first wife, and with music itself. As staged by director Steve Callahan and featuring a memorable cast, this show is at turns bright and energetic, and poignantly affecting.
"Finale" is the latest play from Vladimir Zelevinsky, who has had several productions premiered at West End Players Guild. This one will be especially appealing to fans of classical music and opera, and Rossini in particular. It focuses on two important periods in the composer’s life. In Act One, the young Rossini, played by Timothy McWhirter, is struggling to compose the Act One finale to The Barber of Seville, with little time to spare before the curtain rises on the production's premiere in Rome. Backstage, the gifted but impulsive and amorous young composer deals with the impatience of his producer Domenico Barbaia, played by Matt Anderson, and flirts with renowned singer and Barbaia's fiancée Isabella Colbran, played by Paula Stoff Dean. Rossini enlists Isabella's help in working on his composition as the two banter and deal with their obvious attraction, as well as with unwelcome interruptions by Barbaia and other plot twists involving a young aspiring singer called Angel, played by Sadie Harvey, who is the source of several surprises.
The first act is lively, witty, and fast-paced, with a fair amount of physical comedy involved, but the second act offers a striking contrast. Taking place years later in Paris, the story revisits Rossini as a tired, jaded writer who is absorbed in his work but struggles to write something new and original. Isabella is neglected and hopes to take her husband to a new home and revitalize their relationship, and Barbaia has a new offer for the composer from the King of France himself. Angel is there too, although in this act she's more of a fantasy or memory, and the overall tone is more dramatic and melancholic. The contrast in the situations emphasizes the difference in Rossini's character as he has grown from young, energetic and impulsive to older and more regretful.
In a way, this story almost seems like two plays in one, but it works largely because of the excellent performances of McWhirter as the charming and unpredictable Rossini, and Dean as the talented, hopeful but eventually neglected Isabella. These two are the heart and soul of this production, with strong chemistry and stage presence. Harvey is also excellent, particularly in her comic moments in the first act, and as a sounding board for Rossini's regrets in the second. Anderson, for his part, is a little difficult to believe as the somewhat clueless Barbaia of the first act, but he is much more believable in Act Two as the enterprising older impresario.
Technically, the show has a striking, period-appropriate look, with stylish scenic design by Ken Clark and excellent lighting by Nathan Schroeder and sound by Chuck Lavazzi. Tracey Newcomb's costumes are also memorable, with period-specific detail that lends much to the overall tone of the show, in both acts, reflecting the change in fashion over the years. The pacing is brisk and energetic, especially in the more farcical first act, while becoming a bit more deliberate in the more reflective second act.
Overall, "Finale" is a promising work that I'm thinking will appeal especially to viewers who are familiar with Rossini and his work, as well as the technical aspects of reading and writing music. It's also an educational experience for those who aren't as familiar with these subjects. It's another fascinating work from Zelevinsky, who attended the opening night performance. With a good cast and excellent direction, this is a work of art worth seeing, hearing, and experiencing.
Performances of “Finale” from West End Players Guild continue at Union Avenue Christian Church until May 7th. For more information, visit westendplayers.org.