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Songs for Nobodies
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Pamela Hunt
Max & Louie Productions
January 24, 2020

Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions has had a lot of success with Debby Lennon front and center, and their latest production is no different. Songs For Nobodies is a one-woman show featuring the stories of five “ordinary” women and their encounters with five legendary performers of the 20th Century, featuring a variety of musical styles from classic pop standards, to country, to jazz, to classical. It seems an ideal vehicle for the talented, vocally versatile Lennon, and she and the show do not disappoint.

This isn’t one story, but five, highlighting the larger-than-life talents of legendary singers Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas, as told from the points of view of five different women who had memorable meetings with one of the five. There’s restroom attendant Beatrice Ethel Appleton, who encounters Garland while on the job at a swanky New York hotel and receives some comfort and advice in a difficult time. There’s also Pearl Avalon, whose meeting with Cline (at what would turn out to be the singer’s last performance) inspired her future career as a backup singer for some of country music’s greatest stars. We also meet Edie Delamotte, an English librarian who remembers her father’s fateful meeting with Piaf during World War II, as well as Too Junior Jones, an ambitious New York reporter who gets an interview with Holiday. Finally, Irish nanny Orla McDonagh recounts her run-in with Callas–and Aristotle Onassis–on a luxury yacht. The overall point seems to be highlighting the music of the famous singers, while also showing their impact on “everyday” women in more “mundane” non-celebrity positions, while also in its own way showing the humanity of iconic figures who are often remembered more by their public image. So, while some of these women may be “nobodies” and some are world-renowned, the underlying point is that everyone is somebody.

The one-woman show nature of this piece makes casting a crucial matter, and Max & Louie’s creative team have chosen their “go-to” MVP, Lennon, for this challenging task. The choice is unsurprising considering Lennon’s already proven talent, both in terms of acting and her remarkable voice. She gets a chance to show off all of her considerable skills here, from giving us unique characterizations of all of the “ordinary women” that require her to employ several different accents and play different ages, to getting to perform a “greatest hits” array of songs associated with the five legendary singers–such as “Come Rain or Come Shine” for Garland, “Crazy” for Cline, “Non, Je Regrette Rien” for Piaf, “Strange Fruit” for Holiday, and Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” for Callas. This is an impressively wide range of styles, and Lennon delivers each song with remarkable versatility.  Overall, each segment has its own humor, drama, and poignancy, although for me the standout was the Piaf segment, both for Lennon’s uncannily accurate singing and for the power of the story itself.

Technically, the show is remarkable in its stylish simplicity. There are no costume or makeup changes, and Lennon–outfitted by costume designer Dorothy Jones in a simple black dress–relies on the strength of her own acting to show the changes in characters, with occasional use of accessories such as scarf and sunglasses for Callas, a glass of whiskey for Holiday, a black shawl for Piaf. Dunsi Dai’s elegant set, Kevin Bowman’s projections, and Stellie Siteman’s props contribute much to the mood, as well. There’s also excellent atmospheric work from lighting designer Tony Anselmo, proficient sound from Phillip Evans, and an excellent musical ensemble led by music director and pianist Nicolas Valdez and featuring Jake Stergos on bass and Keith Bowman on percussion.

Songs for Nobodies is a “showcase” kind of show, for its iconic celebrity subjects, for their “ordinary counterparts” and, especially because of its structure, for the show’s featured star. Here, Debby Lennon gets to remind audiences of her memorable talents, and Max & Louie Productions gets to produce another remarkable performance. If you love these artists and their music, and especially if you love to experience the power of live performance, this is a show to see, and hear.

 

Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Songs for Nobodies at the Kranzberg Theatre until February 2, 2020

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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
by Lanie Robertson
Directed by Leda Hoffmann
Max & Louie Productions
February 17, 2017

Alexis J. Roston Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Alexis J. Roston
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Billie Holiday was an undisputed legend of jazz music. Since she died in 1959, there are many people today who have had no opportunity to see her in concert. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, currently being presented by Max & Louie Productions, gives audiences the closest chance they can get to seeing Holiday perform live. Through a remarkably complex performance from its leading performer, attenders are given a window into Holiday’s life and music, simultaneously showing the greatness and the struggles of her too-short life.

The Billie Holiday we see here, as portrayed by the remarkably talented Alexis J. Roston, is the Lady Day who was nearing the end of her career, as well as of her life. Taking place in March, 1959–four months before she died–the play has the conceit of a concert. Introduced by Holiday’s small band led by pianist Jimmy Powers (Abdul Hamid Royal), Holiday is unpredictable but enthusiastic at first, singing a string of jazz tunes and sharing anecdotes from her life, some humorous and others poignant, sad, and even disturbing. This is a Billie Holiday whose greatness as a singer is still readily evident, although her weariness and decline is also clearly on display. It’s an incredibly strong, richly nuanced performance from Roston, who sounds like Holiday but comes across as a fully realized character rather than a simple impression or tribute. Songs like the poignant “God Bless the Child” and the devastating “Strange Fruit” are not simply sung well by Roston–they are vividly set up in the stories she tells, as she remembers her mother, her first husband who introduced her to heroin, and her experiences performing in the highly segregated and hostile Southern states. Sipping whiskey throughout, Holiday ranges from lucid to near-incoherent, but that voice still rings out when she sings, showing us the talent that made her a legend even when, at this moment in time, the best years of her singing career are behind her.

Although the show is primarily about Holiday, and Roston’s superb performance, she is well supported by Royal as her supportive but occasionally exasperated pianist, Jimmy, and by Kaleb Kirby (drums) and Benjamin Wheeler (Bass), Jimmy’s bandmates. The set, by Dunsi Dai, is a vividly realistic recreation of a 1950’s Philadelphia jazz bar, and Dorothy Jones’s costumes outfit Roston and her band in appropriate period attire. Patrick Huber’s lighting is also especially effective in setting and maintaining the mood and concert atmosphere of the production, with excellent work from sound designer Casey Hunter as well. The music is well-represented by Roston’s excellent voice as well as Royal’s strong music direction and the band’s top-notch playing.

There are many memorable songs here, from “I Wonder Where Love Has Gone” and “When a Woman Loves a Man” to “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and the emotional “Deep Song” that closes the show.  What we see here in this stunningly realized production is an artist at the end of her life, but with so much of her talent on display even through the more difficult moments. Roston especially is a revelation, and this is a production not to be missed especially for fans of classic jazz music and of Lady Day herself.

Abdul Hamid Royal, Kaleb Kirby, Ben Wheeler, Alexis J. Roston Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Abdul Hamid Royal, Kaleb Kirby, Ben Wheeler, Alexis J. Roston
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Kranzberg Arts Center until March 4, 2017.

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