There are five iconic world-famous characters and five titular “nobodies” on stage during the Northlight Theater live-action return, each embodied in exquisite undertones by veteran Chicago actress Bethany Thomas.
Director Rob Lindley performed well on Joanna Murray Smith’s roughly 100-minute solo musical. Thomas is equally powerful, singing a bloody viola-fueled blues and piercing the soprano stratosphere with the most delicate opera arias. “Songs for Nobodies” gives him a chance to stretch every last vocal and acting muscle in that terrific range.
As Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf, Thomas shines in the production which runs until October 31 at the Skokie site. As five unsung women whose lives have briefly crossed paths with these luminaries, Thomas provides intriguing insight into the formative impact great music can have on people, no matter how famous or (seemingly) forgettable.
In Lindley’s minimalist directing, Thomas transforms with each new story of a star-studded encounter, not so much posing as Judy, Billie et al, but capturing their energy and the myriad of emotions that defined their music. We listen to the sound of secrets, divulged by some of the greatest singers of all time.
And while it’s not exactly mimicry, if you close your eyes during “Lady Sings the Blues” or “Come Rain or Come Shine” – or one of the dozen other numbers that playwright Smith puts in the middle of the game. dialogue – you’d swear to hear the originals.
Thomas is equally genuine in describing the varied “people” who briefly found themselves in the megawatt orbit of the superstars, providing a context generally hidden from the rest of the world. We hear about the misogyny and cruelty of Aristotle Onassis from a nanny working on the Greek tycoon’s yacht, closely observing the dynamic between the billionaire, his wife, and Callas, his mistress. We see Garland’s empathy through the lens of a toilet attendant, Cline through the awe-inspiring eyes of a usher who unexpectedly becomes a backing vocalist. The nobodies that Thomas embodies also include a New York Times fashion reporter who sees an interview with Billie Holiday as a ticket to career advancement, and a librarian with a deep connection to Piaf’s work for the French Resistance during the Second World War.
Smith uses the dialogue as a window into the complexity of the stars, the music to remind us why they were stars to begin with. Thomas navigates both music and words, celebrities and ordinary people with dexterity, changing characters with a change in posture or tone. She goes from the bittersweet twang of “Crazy” by Cline (originally credited to Willie Nelson) to the anguish growl of “No, I regret nothing” from Piaf as a vocal shapeshifter. And when she gets to Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” her voice captures the trauma of a centuries-old tragedy that spills over to the present day.
Under lighting by Jesse Klug and simple decor by Jeffrey D. Kmiec, Thomas makes Northlight feel like an intimate bistro in the evening. Thomas is supported throughout by musical director Andra Velis Simon’s four-person micro-orchestra, which skillfully captures the changing moods of the score and often sounds much bigger than one might expect. expect from a quartet.
Throughout, “Songs for Nobodies” provides a vivid reminder of what we’ve missed over the year + COVID cancellations and an exciting celebration of the return of the theater.
For COVID-19 protocols and security measures, visit the theater website.