Theater Review: SONGS FOR NOBODIES (Northlight Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on October 4, 2021

in Theater-Chicago


In the spring of 2020 the Northlight Theatre was set to present Bethany Thomas in “Songs for Nobodies,” a one-performer show that would celebrate five iconic female singers of the 20th century. Then came the pandemic scourge and the show, like all theater activity in the country, was extinguished. Thomas and “Songs for Nobodies” have now been reinstalled on the Northlight stage, allowing audiences to finally revel in the star’s limitless skills as a singer and actor.

“Songs for Nobodies” is built on the concept of pairing five average females (like a department store cosmetic salesperson or a fashion writer for the New York Times) with a famous singer in a string of five extended scenes. The five, in order of appearance, are pop singer Judy Garland, country music singer Patsy Cline, French cabaret singer Edith Piaf, jazz singer Billie Holiday, and opera diva Maria Callas. Thomas plays the “nobodies” each undergoing a life changing experience after encountering one of the five celebrities, likewise played by Thomas. Each scene offers at least one song identified with the singer, like Cline’s “Stand by Your Man” and Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The songs are wrapped around monologues filled with much insight, humor, and sometimes pain, all written by Joanna Murray-Smith, who gets playwright credit.

Thomas’s portraits of the singers aren’t conceived as a set of night club-style impersonations, though she does deliver spot-on portraits of Billie Holliday and Patsy Cline and accurately captures Edith Piaf’s husky voice. The show is mostly presented from the viewpoint of the five commonplace women who briefly connect with the stars. These women, with their personal stories, turn out to be at least as absorbing as Garland, Cline, Piaf, Holiday, and Callas.

Thomas rotates among four microphones on a minimalist set consisting of an arrangement of elevated circular playing areas. The splendid fulsome musical accompaniment comes from the trio of Andra Velis Simon (conductor and keyboard), Yulia Block (drums and accordion), and Kelsee Vandervall (cello and percussion). The staging also benefits from contributions by Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes), Jesse Klug (lighting), and Lindsay Jones (sound).

Under Rob Lindley’s understated but sure direction, Thomas smoothly melds from segment to segment, always sustaining the viewer’s attention as she moves from segment to segment. After singing in four pop music genres, Thomas ends the show with an aria from Puccini’s tragic opera “Tosca” that demonstrates a vocal power that had the opening night audience roaring.

“Songs for Nobodies” runs about 95 minutes with no intermission. Only Thomas knows how physically demanding the show is with its multiple shifts in vocal style and narrative moods. Indeed, the production may be a few minutes too long, but I wouldn’t know what to cut. In many Chicagoland productions over the years Thomas has been a stellar supporting performer. Finally she has the stage all to herself and she seizes the moment to score a stunning personal triumph.

The show gets a rating of four stars.

Audiences must provide proof of vaccination and wear masks while in the theater.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Songs for Nobodies
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd in Skokie
ends on October 31, 2021
for tickets ($30-$89), call 847.673.6300 or visit Northlight Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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