There are five iconic, globally famous somebodies and five titular “nobodies” onstage in Northlight Theatre’s return to live performance, each one embodied with exquisite nuance by veteran Chicago actress Bethany Thomas.
Director Rob Lindley cast the roughly 100-minute, one-woman musical by Joanna Murray Smith well. Thomas is equally powerful belting alto-fueled, blood-in-the-water blues and piercing the soprano stratosphere with the most delicate of operatic arias. “Songs for Nobodies” gives her a chance to stretch every last vocal and acting muscle in that formidable range.
As Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf, Thomas shines in the production running through Oct. 31 at the Skokie venue. As five not-famous women whose lives briefly intersected with those luminaries, Thomas provides intriguing insight into the formative impact great music can have on people, no matter how famous or (seemingly) forgettable.
In Lindley’s minimalist staging, Thomas transforms with each new story of a starry encounter, not so much impersonating Judy, Billie et al, so much as capturing their energy and the myriad emotions that defined their music. We’re listening to the sound of secrets, as divulged by some of the greatest female vocalists of all time.
And while it’s not exactly mimicry, if you close your eyes during “Lady Sings the Blues” or “Come Rain or Come Shine” — or any of the other dozen or so numbers playwright Smith packs in amid the dialogue — you’d swear you hearing the originals.
Thomas is equally authentic portraying the varied “nobodies” who found themselves briefly in the megawatt orbit of superstars, providing context usually hidden from the rest of the world. We hear about Aristotle Onassis’ misogyny and cruelty from a nanny working on the Greek tycoon’s yacht, carefully observing the dynamic between the billionaire, his wife and Callas, his mistress. We see Garland’s empathy through the lens of a powder-room attendant, Cline through the wonderstruck eyes of an usher who unexpectedly becomes a backup singer. The nobodies Thomas embodies also include a New York Times fashion reporter who sees an interview with Billie Holiday as a ticket to career advancement, and a librarian with a deep connection to Piaf’s work for the French Resistance during World War II.
Smith uses the dialogue as a window into the complexities of the stars, the music to remind us why they were stars to begin with. Thomas navigates both music and words, celebrities and everyday people with dexterity, switching characters with a change in posture or tone. She moves from the bittersweet twang of Cline’s “Crazy” (originally credited to Willie Nelson) to the growl of existential angst of Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” like a vocal shapeshifter. And when she gets to Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” her voice captures the trauma of a centuries-old tragedy that reverberates right through today.
Under Jesse Klug’s lighting and on Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s simple set, Thomas makes Northlight feel like an intimate, after-hours bistro. Thomas is backed throughout by music director Andra Velis Simon’s four-person micro-orchestra, which deftly captures the mercurial moods of the score and often sounds far larger than one might expect from a quartet.
Throughout, “Songs for Nobodies” provides a vivid reminder of what we missed during the year+ of COVID-cancellations and a thrilling celebration of theater’s return.
For COVID-19 protocols and safety measures, visit the theater’s website.