The Stackner Cabaret at the Milwaukee Rep has been the scene of an abundance of funny shows with songs with simple melodies and silly lyrics.
Think the “Doyle and Debbie Show” and “Guys on Ice” and “Gutenberg! The Musical.”
But the Stackner has been beautifully remodeled (with a small issue with sight lines for the second row in the riser behind the main floor).
And they’ve opened the new place with one of the most sophisticated and moving shows ever in the cabaret.
Indeed, even though the song wasn’t in the production of “Songs for nobodies,” I couldn’t help but think of one of the greatest jazz songs of all time, Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”
The production of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s pean to five wonderful singers and her examination of what it means to be a nobody, rides the wings of Bethany Thomas into the skies of glorious drama and music.
Ms. Thomas is a Chicago based actor and singer and her work here is both rare and powerful. To see someone command a stage like Ms. Thomas is a magnetic performer who takes on a very difficult challenge with the kind of magic that had a Thursday night audience in a special kind of rapture.
The story features five women, Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas, all famous and accomplished. Each singer is paired with a “nobody,” and Ms. Thomas, playing all parts, tells the story of a song sung for each of the ladies.
These are not impersonations, by Ms. Thomas. Rather, under the musical direction of Abdul Hamid and the Direction of Laura Braza, she chillingly captures the essence of five very different vocalists.
In addition, this is a show that reeks with intelligence.
For example, when doing Edith Piaf, it could be expected that we would hear “La Vie en Rose,” her most famous song. Instead we hear both “L’Accordéoniste” and a moving rendition of “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien,” a song everyone will recognize and which captures the memory of a daughter whose father was saved from the death camp at Dachau by a chance encounter with Ms. Piaf.
Ms. Thomas plays both characters in each scene: A seamstress to Ms. Garland; an usher and backup singer to Ms. Cline; the daughter in the Ms. Piaf scene; a rookie reporter to Ms. Holliday and an Irish nanny on the Aristotle Onassis yacht to Ms. Callas.
Each story is compelling, filled with humor and the pathos of the ups and downs of lives filled with both joys and sorrows, the expected and the surprising.
But more than anything there is the music and, again, Ms. Thomas doesn’t even try to be a mimic. Instead she flashes both musical and theatrical genius to capture the quirks and identifiers of each voice.
Ms. Garland was a singer who treated each song as an athletic contest and she attacked with vigor. She was noted for throwing all of her enthusiasm into a song and and letting it jump around inside her throat. The diaphragm was not a factor in her performance. Ms. Thomas go the sound and with her mouth forming a huge “O” on the long vowels it was perfect. She dripped with the pain of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer classic.
Then came Ms. Cline who was noted for her smooth and emotional vocal stylings. She had an alto sound that was punctuated by a kind of hiccup that added to the emotional wallop of her songs. Ms. Thomas brought all of it to the Willie Nelson classic, “Crazy.” (A side note is that Mr. Nelson wrote “Crazy.” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and ”Night Life” in the same week. )
Then came the Ms. Piaf songs, and featured a performance with the power and passion of the French chanteuse. Ms. Piaf was noted for wringing every moment of emotion out of her songs, and Ms. Thomas captured both the power and mournful passion of the singer.
Ms. Holiday for whom music was a message. Her style was marked by pitch variance in each performance, designed to keep listeners leaning forward waiting for what was coming next. She had a particular phrasing that drew vowel sounds out like a rubber band being stretched to almost the breaking point.
And finally, there was Ms. Callas. This was a profound demonstration of the variety of Ms. Thomas’ skills. She sang the heartbreaking area “Vissi D’Arte” from Puccini’s Tosca. Ms. Thomas captured the mezzo power and color that belonged to Ms. Callas and watching her slide around a stage like the most accomplished diva was riveting.
“Songs for nobodies” is a surprising evening and the delivers the kind of enchantment and a musical mojo that is a fitting match for the loveliness of the new Stackner.
Production Credits: Director, Laura Braza; Music Director, Abdul Hamid Royal;Scenic Designer, Michelle Lilly; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tacoma; Lighting Designer, Jared Gooding; Sound Designer, Erin Paige; Dialect Coach, Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; New York Casting, Dale Brown; Stage Manager, Rebekah Heusel; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.