Title: Songs for Nobodies. Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith
At: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. Tickets: $30-$89. Runs through: Sunday, Oct. 31
You won't find their names in the history books. They were once called "slaves," "servants" and, occasionally, "victims" but nowadays they are designated "rear-echelon personnel" or "service sector" or "support staff." To dismiss them as "nobodies" is a misnomer, however, for celebrity demands their participation, and in abundance. Joanna Murray-Smith presents us with five such commonerseach with a tale of the brief moment when that person's circumscribed world intersected with the rarefied universe of the privileged and famous.
Take, for example, the ladies' loo attendant in a chic night club adjacent to Carnegie Hall, whose first-aid-for-the-fashionable waystation provides Judy Garland a quick repair on a ripped dress-hem, or the concert-venue usher whose duties at Kansas City's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall take her into Patsy Cline's dressing room on what will become a fatal night. Oh, and if show-business isn't your idea of high-stakes encounters, we also hear a Nottingham librarian recount how the WW II resistance fighter who would someday become her father was rescued from certain death in the concentration camps by Edith Piaf, whose star power as France's premier chanteuse enabled her to cheat the Nazis of their prey.
Theatergoers of literary bent searching for an arc to what might at first appear to be merely a random selection of stories might note that the first two of our storytellers wait to be noticed by their mentors (while the third is not yet even born), but that the fourth, a cub reporter sent to secure an interview with an uncooperative Billie Holiday, achieves her goal by asserting herself to win the jazz icon's respect. Finally, when the fifth attestora nanny for the children of Aristotle Onassis aboard the latter's yacht during his adulterous affair with opera diva Maria Callasis harassed by the boss, whether her response represents submission or rejection is up to the individual viewer, but what is certain is that the decision is hers, and hers alone.
Audience members for whom it's not enough that Bethany Thomas paints vividly empowering portraits of these witnesses to glory, rendering each personality whole and differentiated with the twitch of a shoulder or extension of a vowel (dialect instruction by Eva Breneman), Murray-Smith's narrative also ensures our familiarity with the "Somebodies" lending our "Nobodies" their claim to distinction by requiring her narrators to replicate such signature anthems as "Come Rain or Come Shine," "San Antonio Rose" and, more significantly, "Strange Fruit." The versatile Thomas confronts this challenging mimicry with spot-on accuracy, from Piaf's chesty croon to Holiday's kittenish whine, capping off the evening with a plaster-your-brains-to-the-ceiling rendition of Puccini's "Vissi D'Arte" in a vocal display exceeding the hitherto-assumed capabilities of a Broadway-belter. Who's a "Nobody" now?