Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith had the spectacular idea of creating an intimate entertainment about the memorable encounters of five famous singers with five devoted fans. Each singer would perform at least one of the numbers for which she is famous. And all ten of these women, the five singers and the five ordinary women admirers, would be played by one, and only one, performer. Wouldn’t that be spectacular! The only problem is, where are you going to find an actor and singer who can sing like Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas, and play a scene showing each of them with her admirer?
Max & Louie Productions found that actor and singer right here in St. Louis, and put her on the stage in the Kranzberg Arts Center Black Box Theatre in their staging of Murray-Smith’s Songs for Nobodies. That was just before the pandemic closed our theatres, and I’m not sure if that production completed its run. Whether it did or not, the audience reaction to it could have kept it running for a long time.
So to seize the new day, the dynamic duo at Max & Louie have revived their production. It is now at the Grandel Theatre, with a larger stage and auditorium, which means a few changes in the production. Pamela Hunt continues to direct. Dunsi Dai again designed the set, a little more to it now, with not only a larger screen up right for Kevin Bowman’s projected titles, photos, and even an intensely moving video of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” which I believe was not in the previous production. Up left is a large scrim which allows the three instrumentalists, musical director Nicolas Valdez on piano, Jake Stargos on bass, and Adam Kopff on percussion, to appear and disappear as appropriate. Dorothy Jones is again the costume designer, Tony Anselmo the lighting designer, and Phillip Evans the sound designer.
And bless you, Max & Louie, because again at the center of it all is Debbie Lennon, as each and every one of the ten women. Lennon concludes the performance as Maria Callas singing Puccini with full operatic power, a luscious tone, a delicately controlled vibrato. Just minutes before, Lennon is jazz great Billie Holiday with the defensive and witty “Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do.” Before that, she’s a defiant Edith Piaf proclaiming “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Patsy Cline sings “San Antonio Rose” in Kansas City in what would be her final concert. Garland does not sing “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow.” This is a thirty-something Garland, at her peak, warm and outgoing, comforting a troubled washroom attendant, a fan of the Mickey-and-Judy movies, whose husband has just left her, marital troubles not being unknown to Garland, An usher in the Kansas City auditorium checking dressing rooms stumbles upon Patsy Cline. Cline encourages the usher to sing, and she winds up singing back-up with Cline in the show. Piaf’s more distant connection is with an English librarian. During the Second World War, the librarian’s father returned to France to fight with the French Underground. Captured, he escaped from Dachau with the Little Sparrow when she entertained there. A young reporter’s interview with a reluctant Lady Day successfully launches the reporter’s career. A nanny employed by Callas gets to know and admire her.
Lennon convincingly incarnates each of these ten women. In singing as the five, she does not so much attempt directly to imitate them as to present their manner and style, their essence and their individuality. She is doing amazing work and giving us great pleasure. Welcome back, Debbie.
Photo by Dunsi Dai