BWW Review: One Dazzling Star Sings Five Legendary Divas in SONGS FOR NOBODIES at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The stage at the Stackner Cabaret sits in wait with a chaise lounge, a dressing room mirror, an upright piano, a chair for the cellist, and a silver microphone for the star. Well, five stars and five ordinary people - the "nobodies" in Joanna Murray-Smith's Songs for Nobodies. The kicker? These ten historical figures are brought to life by just one incredible performer.
Would you believe that one woman could embody the likes of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holliday, and Maria Callas? Milwaukee Rep alum and diva in her own right, Bethany Thomas, does just that, moving seamlessly from Garland's singular belting to Cline's cry to Piaf's thundering French ballads. She nails the signature tone in Holiday's iconic jazz instrument, then ends the show with Callas' soaring operatics. Thomas delivers one powerhouse vocal after another, as breathtaking a songbird as she is a captivating storyteller.
At its heart, Songs for Nobodies is about the stories just as much as the music. This isn't a musical review, after all. Rather, there's anywhere from one to three songs paired up with each diva's narrated snapshot. Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith hits a string of emotional high notes in these snapshots - sometimes sweet, sometimes sad, sometimes laugh-aloud, but always candid and beautifully crafted.
The play starts with musings on happiness - that it's "the temporary illusion that nothing is about to change for the worst." The woman philosophizing said happiness is Bea Appleton, a bathroom attendant who had a chance meeting with Judy Garland while she was "havin' a pee." Next up is Pearl Avalon, a waitress turned backup singer, thanks to Patsy Cline. Edith Piaf's "nobody" is a British librarian whose father escaped Dachau thanks to the grace and split-second actions of the Little Sparrow, following a performance at a nazi prison.
Then there's Gwendolyn, AKA "Too Junior," a reporter for the New York Times who aches to stop writing about hemlines and start writing about something of value. Her big break: an interview with Billie Holiday in a hotel bar. And finally we meet a young Irish girl, a humble nanny living the high life on a boat with Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, the two in the thick of a fiery love affair. The ties that bind each of these somebodies to their nobody are beautifully affecting, showing how a seemingly insignificant moment of human interaction can change the course of a life.
Watching Thomas flip the switch from the modest everywoman to the diva is incredible. One moment she's meek, soft spoken, and in awe of these musical icons. The next, the audience becomes the everywoman, utterly transfixed and in awe of our star. Thomas is a true talent to be treasured apart from the luminaries she's portraying, for as Bea Appleton says of Patsy Cline, she also possesses a "personality that catches the light."
Part of the joy of watching Thomas on stage, backed by the marvelous Abdul Hamid on piano and Alicia Storin on cello, is just how personal the experience feels. Although the Stackner Cabaret has just undergone an impressive facelift, leaving it with 35% more seating, the space remains wonderfully intimate. To be in the presence of such a voice, such a radiant spirit - and to have that spirit be mere feet away - is immensely special. Thomas gives us more than a taste of history's great divas; with this tour-de-force performance, she proves to be one such diva herself.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow