With Songs for Nobodies, the Milwaukee Rep offers the experience of a lifetime. From your cozy seat in the newly renovated Stackner Cabaret, time turns back and Bethany Thomas brings to life the extraordinary voices of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas.
This remarkably challenging script raises a mirror to some of the icons that have shaped and influenced the image of womanhood throughout time, and in their reflection, shows us the ordinary lives which they touch. Joanna Murray-Smith's piece portrays these celebrities in vulnerable, not-so-glorious places - fixing a hemline in the ladies' room, caught off guard in their dressing rooms, performing at a concentration camp, drinking at a bar, being the 'other woman'. This strips away any pretense between them and 'normal' women we see in ourselves.
All photos by Michael Brosilow.
Thomas is no new face to the Rep. Longtime patrons may recognize her from The Color Purple, Ain't Misbehavin', Ragtime, Man of La Mancha, or A Christmas Carol. However, in Songs for Nobodies, Thomas reveals versatility beyond that which we've seen before.
Not only does the actress navigate the dialects (with dialect coach Clare Arena Haden) and personalities of these stars, but she parallels each with a drastically different woman of average stature. As each vocalist comes in and out of the story, Thomas captures their varied mannerisms and vocal stylings. The switches between characters are unbelievable - one moment, you're watching a simple British librarian recount her life, and then she's become La Mome, the Little Sparrow herself.
Music director and pianist Abdul Hamid and cellist Alicia Storin are tasked with the orchestrations of old jazz, traditional country, and so much in between. In a venue as intimate as the Stackner, there is nothing to distract audiences from a band. These musicians are right up there with Thomas, sitting among the hanging photos of the musicians they are playing with in the show. This masterful duo is unobtrusive on entrances and exits, floating through the air like a memory.
The photographs are one of many details onstage that create a home fit for five stories, and ten lives. Stacks of books, antique perfume bottles, and venue posters fill the nooks and crannies of the brick space. As the show continues, Michelle Lilly's design seems to develop with more and more purpose. Every element is directly reflective of the text.
With director Laura Braza, for Nobodies drops all expectations of a one-woman show. The performance never feels self-indulgent, melodramatic, or long-winded. This is a humbled celebration of all women. It explores both heartbreak and humor, both desire and exhaustion. The script turns the everyday ups and downs of life into vivid poetry, and removes any unnecessary flourish from unattractive realities. The pace barrels ahead, pausing just enough to dwell on the sweeter moments.
Songs for Nobodies, despite being presented by one woman in one act, is representative of so many paths of life. Braza brings light to the best bits of humanity in her series of tableaus, never straying too far into exorbitant artistry. The production draws strength from its' simplicity. To be inspired to be more, to long for less, or to be just enough; all are written between the staff lines of familiar tunes. This is the piece for the stargazing dreamers. This is the piece for the self-identified settlers. This is the piece for any theatregoers with a beating heart, and a love of music.
Songs for Nobodies runs through November 4th at the Milwaukee Rep's Stackner Cabaret.