Early on in Songs for Nobodies, Bea Appleton observes that happiness is really just “ordinary misery without extraordinary fear.”
Bea Who? Exactly the point.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s musical play, which premiered in Australia in 2010, views five iconic women singers—Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas—through the stories of the fictional “nobodies” who meet them (except for Piaf, who is remembered posthumously). Those encounters frame the famous songs of the divas we hear throughout the show. Bea is the ladies room attendant in Manhattan who stitches up a loose hem for Garland in the first vignette, while sharing her own unraveling emotions with the chanteuse.
If we’ve learned anything at all from recent disasters, it’s that both the transcendent gifts of artists and the quotidian dedication of service workers can keep the ordinary misery of existence from turning into something far more cataclysmic. Oh, and that ordinary, if unexpected, moments of empathy and connection can provide balm for battered souls. All of which makes Songs for Nobodies a perfect season opener for Northlight, beyond the fact that a show with a one-person cast probably makes financial sense as well after 371 days with no live performances (as noted by artistic director BJ Jones in his welcome-back address to patrons opening night).
In addition to Bea, we meet an usher-turned-backup singer for Cline; an English librarian whose family owes a debt to Piaf’s Resistance activities during the Nazi occupation of France; a jaded fashion reporter for the New York Times desperate to break into the more prestigious arts beat by scoring an interview with Holiday; and a nanny who fends off the propositions of Aristotle Onassis on his yacht, where the Greek shipping magnate is already entangled in an extramarital affair with Callas.
As noted, Songs for Nobodies requires all ten of these women to be performed and sung by a single actor, and Northlight’s production is blessed to have Chicago treasure Bethany Thomas as that actor. Thomas did this show at Milwaukee Rep three years ago in their small cabaret space. Here, under the adroit and subtle direction of Rob Lindley and with the nimble music direction of Andra Velis Simon and three other (unseen) musicians, Thomas makes Northlight’s larger space at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts feel like a cozy nightclub. Jesse Klug’s low lighting captures the shadowy side of these women’s emotions, but the atmosphere never feels totally bleak or chilly.
Most remarkably, Thomas never makes us feel like we’re watching a mere gloss or caricature of these oft-copied singers whose styles are so markedly different, yet demanding, that one can only imagine the vocal toll this show takes on its star. Though the song selections focus on greatest hits (among them, “Come Rain or Come Shine” for Garland, “Crazy” for Cline, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” for Piaf, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do” for Holiday, and Puccini’s “Vissi D’Arte” for Callas), there is nothing purely imitative in Thomas’s interpretations, though we recognize the stylistic flourishes and timbres immediately.
Songs for Nobodies
Through 10/31: Wed 1 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; also Sun 10/10 and 10/17, 7:30 PM; Wed 10/27, 7:30 PM only, Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300, northlight.org, $30-$89, $15 students (subject to availability).
The women who narrate the various sections also feel three-dimensional and instantly relatable, as if we’ve happened to pull up a chair next to them at a club where the chit-chat has turned to one of those rare public conversations containing quiet revelations that linger long after the last notes of the evening have faded away.
There have been other shows portraying connections between stars and “nobodies”—Always . . . Patsy Cline, based on the friendship between the country legend and superfan Louise Seger, who took her home one night after a show and corresponded with Cline until the latter’s death, comes to mind. The Cline segment is also the only one where the “nobody” gets a shot at being “somebody” by making a last-minute appearance with her idol by singing backup (a scenario which wouldn’t feel out of place in the 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom).
True, these divas are also often anatomized in popular culture as doomed figures who died too soon. (Cline only made it to 30, while Callas is the only one of the five who passed her 50th birthday, dying in 1977 at 53.) But Murray-Smith isn’t primarily interested in rehashing the tragic lives, addictive behaviors, bad relationships, and other familiar tabloid fodder. (The journalist in the Holiday segment has her own soul-searching moment, wondering if she’s just another “grasper” out to feed off the singer’s pain.) Nor is this mere hagiography, though the five narrators all have great affection, sometimes bordering on reverence, for the singers they’re honoring through their memories.
If anything, Songs for Nobodies feels more like an ode to hard-won resilience, whether one’s a star or a servant. The Irish nanny, young though she is, is smart enough not to fall for the gilded cage Onassis seems to dangle in front of her. But Murray-Smith also isn’t dealing in bromides about the superiority of the simple life; there’s no suggestion here that, like Garland’s Dorothy Gale, we should be satisfied with looking for our heart’s desire in our own backyard.
Of course, inevitably, the harshness of some of the biographical details does get filtered through the artistry of the music. But though the five narrators are fictional, the stories as told by Thomas feel shot through with larger truths. As Bea tells us early on, “In this country, people are always talkin’ about dreams. You can be your dream. You can have your dream. You can live the dream. But that’s just a clever way of gettin’ people to shut up and stop complainin’.”
Songs for Nobodies has a dreamlike quality as Thomas seamlessly negotiates the shifts between storyteller and singer. (The fact that we never see the stage band adds to the slightly otherworldly and timeless atmosphere.) But it’s a show that, in its star’s performance, is filled with darkness and light, sweetness and vitriol, and finally a defiant insistence that our stories, whether we’re famous or not, deserve a shot at being heard without judgment.