The search for that thing called “happiness” is elusive at best, and the definition of that word can be as varied as the person chasing it.
But with her bravery solo performance in “Songs for Nobodies”, Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s exceptionally intelligent and monumental demanding musical theater on the complex nature of this state of being – Bethany Thomas, the actress / singer of many talent who has appeared on most of Chicago’s big stages over the past two decades, has clearly found the kind of star turn that can change careers and lives, while unquestionably generating immense happiness, awe and desires. bravos among his audience.
Thomas starred in the show’s U.S. premiere in 2018 and was scheduled to perform it on stage at the Northlight Theater in Skokie in May 2020, when the pandemic led to a lockdown. But on Friday night, she was finally able to light up the stage with a 100-minute tour de force that showcased both her extraordinary vocal range and musical ventriloquism and her remarkable range and charm as an actress.
Meticulously conducted by Rob Lindley, and enhanced by impeccable musical direction from Andra Velis Simon and sound design from Lindsay Jones (with Simon on keyboard, Yulia Block on drums and accordion, and Kelsee Vandervall on cello and percussion ), Thomas arrived on the glamorous stage in a black lace gown (designed by Mieka van der Ploeg) as she moved around the elegant cross-platform stage by set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec which is beautifully lit by Jesse Klug.
The wonderfully theatrical vanity of “Songs for Nobodies” is that five different women stuck in menial or unsatisfying jobs – and in some cases plagued by doubts and unfortunate circumstances that undermine their untapped talents – have unexpected encounters with five different celebrities. that they love. And in the process of interacting with these famous women, they realize that being famous doesn’t have to be happiness, and that they themselves have gifts to share. The extremely smart structure of the series also gives the actress the ability to play 10 different roles and sing in multiple styles and languages.
The first encounter, which took place in 1961, finds a maid in a ladies’ room at a posh hotel coming face to face with an idol, Judy Garland, and sewing the hem of her dress as a result of his legendary concert at Carnegie Hall. And this encounter triggers a performance of “Come Rain or Come Shine”.
Then comes the surprise opportunity for a usher (and aspiring singer) at the Kansas City fundraiser in 1963 where Patsy Cline was the star attraction. Beyond all her fantasies, the usher is invited to accompany Cline as a chorister – an experience (to sound the music of “Stand By Your Man” and “Crazy”) – which occurred just before the accident plane that would end Cline’s life at the age of 30.
And then it’s up to the school librarian who recounts the moment during WWII when her father, who was held in a detention camp in Nazi Germany, was sort of smuggled out by Edith Piaf, who had entertained the enemy. Thomas’ interpretation of two Piaf classics, “L’Accordioniste” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”, is astonishing, not only for its perfect French accent, but also for the way it brilliantly echoes the tone. unique nasal of the “little sparrow” voice.
From there, we meet an ambitious New York Times reporter who is desperate to move from being a fashion reporter to being a writer in the predominantly male newsroom of the time. After many pleas, her boss gives her an interview with Billie Holiday, whom she meets in a bar. Holiday isn’t in the mood to talk, but the reporter is relentless and finally understands her story. Along the way, we hear holiday classics like “Strange Fruit” and “Lady Sings the Blues”, with Thomas eerily capturing the very unique sound of another singer.
To top it off (and I’m issuing a spoiler alert here), is a fifth encounter. It takes place as an Irish nanny works on Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis’s extravagant yacht while he was having an affair with opera diva Maria Callas. Suffice it to say that Thomas’ interpretation of “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for my art, I lived for love.”), An aria of “Tosca” by Puccini whose the tragic title character was one of his most famous roles, is absolutely breathtaking.
Thomas clearly found his own featured vehicle in “Songs for Nobodies”. How she can get through eight shows a week at Northlight by October 31st is enough to blow your mind, and “I’ve Lived for My Art” may well become her own anthem. But one can only hope that this show will have a downtown commercial tour and / or a national tour in the future. It’s a knockout.
For tickets, visit northlight.org or call (847) 673-6300.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic