Chicago Theater Review: ALL THAT HE WAS (Pride Films and Plays)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 13, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


We’re witnesses to an aftermath and its collateral healing, the unsought legacy of a gay guy who died too soon: Newly revised after its 1993 inception and directed by bookwriter/lyricist Larry Todd Cousineau, All That He Was (with music by Cindy O’Connor) is a beautifully structured and powerfully performed valedictory. It sums up a remarkable life from all sides. (Cousineau and O’Connor later created Flies! The Musical!, also produced last year by Pride Films and Plays.)

Deeply affecting and remarkably complex, this 100-minute one-act centers on an outdoor funeral in a small park. The occasion yields flashback memories about a 26-year-old man who died of AIDS. But there’s a wry twist: The deceased, here broadly called The Man (wonderfully mercurial Matt Huston), remains unseen as he narrates his life, hosts his obsequies, and reacts to this retrospective. Like Tom Sawyer hidden in the balcony, he gets to watch his own wake. But this spectator isn’t silent. Though it’s too late for his personal happiness, The Man wants his loved ones to come together, not just as an assembly, but in concord.

The divisions and devotion that marked The Man’s life find outlets here—and, by the very end, reach a kinetic resolution/reconciliation (“Understand”). Final respects mingle with lasting regrets as a dozen songs chart the different responses of mourners who lament him individually and all too narrowly. They must learn the more that was their brother, son, lover, patient, and boyfriend—roles both recognizably generic and strongly specific.

As the gorgeous opener “All That He Was” promises, each significant survivor will get his or her moment to deliver wrenchingly diverse eulogies. The cumulative result is a richly varied group portrait of a lost lad. It begins with the dearly departed fantasizing in “I Want One Day,” sorry for a life cut short and posthumously yearning for the completion that a virus prevented.

After the nine characters efficiently itemize his years (“My Life: A Melodrama”), the remembrances get personal and passionate (“No More Crying”). In “Somewhere Between” his loyal Brother (Ethan Warren) reprises past Christmases and the fun that built a bond — and regrets that he was never told that his beloved sibling had a terminal disease. In “Another Today” and “Things are Looking Better/Worse/The Same,” we sense the desperation of the protective Doctor (Alanna Kalbfleisch) as the disease lurches from tailspins to remissions.

In “I Won’t Cry” The Girlfriend (Brittney Brown) ruefully recalls how she went from would-be sweetheart to unswerving friend. Bitchy jealousy and catty exchanges mark “In Different Ways,” a merry trio disconnecting The Man, The Girlfriend, and The Lover (Joe Giovanetti). This last presenter confesses his guilt over how The Man got sick. His ardor remains non-negotiable.

Replete with conflicting passages from the Bible, “Save Our World” is a fervent but hilarious dueling duet between The Sister (Sarah Ruth Mikulski), a religious zealot with hate in her heart, and the lesbian Counselor (Colleen Perry), fondly known as “the dyke with the friendly voice.” Literally sitting on the sidelines, the homophobic Father (Rick Rapp), estranged and unfaithful, curdles into retroactive remorse and pointless blame-throwing, while the more accepting Mother (Sarah Hayes) swallows Valiums and wishes that she had pushed past her denial.

In the loveliest song of sharing, “Our First Christmas,” the lovers detail — O. Henry-like — the first Noel that changed everything after. Far more than Macy’s slogan, their other duet “Believe” reveals a love that very much dares to say its name. The concluding chorus “We Need Each Other Now,” sung through tears by several singers, splendidly sums up the musical’s message: Each must find their own way to make up for The Man’s lost time. All the “ifs” that haunted the opening chorus are banished by this affirmation.

Engagingly shaped by musical director Cody Michael Bradley, each song carries industrial-strength conviction from a consummate cast. Delivering some very great goods, director/author Cousineau has crafted a very communal labor of love. Pride Films and Plays’ show is in effect a musical “panel” from the AIDS Quilt. It works wonderfully as both a sharply focused memoir from a corrosive epidemic and some very universal discoveries.

photos by Nicholas Swatz

All That He Was
Pride Films and Plays
The Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 5; Mon at 8 (August 19 only)
ends on September 9, 2019 EXTENDED to September 15, 2019
for tickets, call 773.857.0222 or visit Pride Films and Plays

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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