Songs For Nobodies
Chuck Lavazzi – Stage Left, February 1, 2020
Let’s face the music–Debby Lennon shines in ‘Songs for Nobodies‘
Having seen Debby Lennon’s astonishing performance in the Max and Louie production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s one-woman show Songs for Nobodies, I am now convinced that Ms. Lennon can do anything. If she were to walk on water it wouldn’t amaze me.
In fact, she does something almost as miraculous in this show by playing 10–count ’em, 10–different roles in a completely convincing way. The fact that five of those roles are Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas–legendary singers with unique vocal and performance styles–is just icing on that tasty cake.
Ms. Murray-Smith wrote Songs for Nobodies in 2010 as a vehicle for Bernadette Robinson, an Australian singer/actress noted for her skill as a musical impressionist. As such, it’s a pretty tall order for actresses who lack Ms. Robinson’s skills, which may explain why it hasn’t made it to St. Louis until now. Where, after all, can you find someone who can credibly play those great divas as well as the five “nobodies” who connect with them (each of whom has a radically different accent and physical presence)?
The answer, as Judy Garland’s character says in Meet Me in St. Louis, is: “Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.”
Songs for Nobodies is technically a one-act play, running just under 90 minutes, but structurally it’s a set of five short play/monologue hybrids, held together by a common theme: the consequences of serendipitous meetings between ordinary women (the “nobodies” of the title) and extraordinary singers. Sometimes one of the pair is changed, sometimes both (in one case without ever actually meeting), but their stories are always compelling and written with a remarkably good ear for the divergent voices of the characters.
The play opens with the story of Beatrice Appleton, an attendant at the women’s washroom at an upscale New York hotel in 1963. Abandoned by her husband and suspecting that happiness is just the absence of misery, she’s stunned when Judy Garland walks in “to take a pee.” Beatrice notices that Garland’s hem needs a stitch, and as she makes the repairs, Garland coaxes Beatrice’s unhappy history from her. No stranger to romantic disasters herself, Garland sympathizes and begins to sing, a cappella, one of her signature tunes, “Come Rain or Come Shine.” The lighting shifts, the band starts to play, and suddenly we’re seeing full-metal Judy on stage. The transitions among Beatrice, real-life Judy, and stage Judy are handled so smoothly that the illusion of multiple actresses on stage is perfect.
Those amazing nobody-to-somebody transitions continue for the rest of the evening. The second story concerns a chance encounter between country star Patsy Cline and Pearl Avalon, a singer and usherette at the 1963 benefit concert in Kansas City, Kansas, on what turned out to be the last night of Cline’s life. Then we meet Edie Delamotte, a librarian in contemporary England who discovers that she owes her very existence to the great French chanteuse Édith Piaf, who saved Edie’s father from a trip to Dachau.
Next it’s back to NYC in the 1950s, where ambitious reporter Gwendolyn “Too Junior” Jones (so dubbed by her colleagues because she’s constantly told that she’s “too junior” for plum assignments) breaks out of the fashion section via an interview with Billie Holiday that includes an a cappella version of “Strange Fruit,” the graphic depiction of a lynching that white America didn’t want to hear. Finally, Irish nanny Orla McDonagh comes close to being seduced by Aristotle Onassis aboard his yacht until the sound of Maria Callas singing Puccini’s “Visi d’arte” (from Tosca) casts a different spell–and ends the show.
The abruptness of that ending leaves Orla’s story incomplete, but that small flaw is my only complaint about what is otherwise a very compelling script.
Along the way Patsy Cline sings “San Antonio Rose” and “Crazy.” Piaf does “L’accordioniste” and (the one that made me tear up) “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing at all”). And Holiday gives us “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” this time with the band.
None of those singers were really present, of course (they’re all dead, to begin with), but Ms. Lennon’s impersonations are so perfect that they might as well have been. As an Édith Piaf fan, I was especially taken with her ability to conjure up the shade of “La Môme Piaf” (“the little sparrow”), right down to those “gargled” r’s that are characteristic of her French. Indeed, calling those performances “impersonations” is rather like calling a Tesla Roadster an automobile. Sure, it’s accurate, but it hardly does the thing justice.
Backing Ms. Lennon up is a first-rate trio of local musicians led by pianist and music director Nicolas Valdez. The night I attended, Jake Stergos played bass with Keith Bowman on percussion, sitting in for Ben Wheeler and Micah Walker, respectively.
Applause is due as well to Dialect Coach Pamela Reckamp (a vital role in a show the requires multiple English accents and a very specific form of French) and Lighting Designer Tony Anselmo. Dunsi Dai’s is simple and functional, assisted by Kevin Bowman’s projections, which neatly set each scene and provided visuals to illustrate the individual stories. Pamela Hunt’s direction moves everything along at a good pace and insures that sight lines are always clean.
It is, in short, a flawless production.
Debby Lennon’s tour de force performance of Songs for Nobodies continues through Sunday, February 2nd, in the black box space at the Kranzberg Center at Grand and Olive in Grand Center. Catch it if you can; it’s truly spectacular.