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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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Born Yesterday
by Garson Kanin
Directed by Pamela Hunt
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 16, 2018

Ruth Pferdehirt, Aaron Bartz
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Born Yesterday is a classic comedy that made a star of Judy Holliday, on stage in 1946 and on screen in 1950. The sharp, old-school screwball comedy is a potential star vehicle for whoever plays the role of Billie Dawn, the former showgirl who starts out playing into the “dumb blonde” stereotype but turns around to subvert it. The Rep, finishing out their season with this production, has found an ideal star for this role in gifted comic performer Ruth Pferdehirt. She’s not alone in this production, however, shining in a top-notch cast with the Rep’s well-known stellar production values.

The story takes place in in a luxurious suite in an upscale Washington, DC  hotel in the late 1940s, where brash self-made millionaire and “junk man” Harry Brock (Andy Prosky) has come to exert his influence on some legislation that will benefit him and his business. He’s brought along his lawyer and chief advisor Ed Devery (Ted Deasy) to help him connect with a senator (Kurt Zischke) who is up for some financial “encouragement”. Harry has also brought along his longtime girlfriend and former chorus girl Billie (Pferdehirt), whose lack of manners and education embarrasss the equally uneducated Harry, who is trying to impress the society types in DC, including the senator and his wife (Gina Daniels). Rather than send Billie home, the domineering Harry enlists an idealistic young journalist, Paul Verrall (Aaron Bartz) to tutor Billie in some of the basics of government and society. The initially reluctant Billie and Paul soon disscover a mutual attraction, as Billie reveals that she’s a lot brighter than Harry, or anyone in his entourage, had expected. Soon, Billie discovers that all those papers Harry has been making her sign aren’t quite as innocuous as she had been led to believe, and Paul, in addition to his tutoring, also encourages her to assert her independence and stand up to the shady, increasingly volatile and violent Harry. All this is played out to the tune of Garson Kanin’s witty, incisive script that speaks a lot to today’s political climate as well as that of its day.

The powerhouse performance here is Pferdehirt in a wonderfully layered and also delightfully comic tour de force as Billie. Her increasing boldness, as well as her dawning sense of awareness of herself and the world around her, is magnificiently portrayed, with a strong stage presence and over-the-top but still relatable personality. She stuggles a little bit with consistency in terms of her New York accent early on, but that smooths out over the course of the play. She has great chemistry with the also excellent Prosky as the boorish, ruthlessly ambitious Harry, and with Bartz, who gives a charming performance as Paul. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, including Deasy as the increasingly conflicted Ed; Randy Donaldson as Harry’s cousin and all-purpose assistant Eddie; Zischke and Daniels as Senator and Mrs. Hedges; Michelle Hand as the initially surly maid Helen; and also CeCe Hll, Cassandra Lopez, Tom Wethington, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Maison Kelly, and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in various ensemble roles. Director Pamela Hunt has staged the show in a fast-moving way that highlights the strength of the comedy and the characters, as well.

Visually, the show looks great. The 1940s high-society look has been ideally achieved in James Morgan’s sumptously appointed set. Lou Bird’s costumes are also stylish and period-appropriate, with a succession of colorful outfits for Billie and well-tailored suits for the men, as well as appropriate outfits for the various hotel staff members. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger and sound designer Rusty Wandall, helping to set the overall tone and mood of this sharp, bright and still thoughtful comedy.

This Born Yesterday is a delightful production. It’s bold, it’s funny, it’s surprisingly timely, and it has a great cast, led by the truly stellar performance of Pferdehirt as Billie. It’s a memorable way to close out a great season at the Rep.

Andy Prosky, Ruth Pferdehirt
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Born Yesterday until April 8, 2018.

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