Powerhouse performance: Bethany Thomas triumphs in 'Songs for Nobodies' at Northlight Theatre
"Songs for Nobodies" - ★ ★ ★
Thank your lucky stars that Chicago's own Bethany Thomas stars in Northlight Theatre's local premiere of "Songs for Nobodies." Without a powerhouse performer like Thomas at its center, there would be no reason to stage this engaging one-woman show.
Thomas nimbly navigates the many show hurdles put in place by playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, who originally created "Songs for Nobodies" in 2010 for Australian performer Bernadette Robinson.
First of all, "Songs for Nobodies" requires a versatile singer like Thomas to embody the distinctive and iconic singing voices of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas.
And then said singer also has to act her way though a series of fictional "nobodies," all with contrasting international and American regional accents, no less. These women frame the show's songs with dramatic vignettes about the times they entered the personal orbits of all these tragic and inspirational 20th-century stars.
Anyone who has followed Thomas' stage career around Chicago has no reason to doubt her talent. The fact that Thomas starred in the American premiere of "Songs for Nobodies" at Milwaukee Rep in 2018 should also come as no surprise.
Yet it is amazing how Thomas' jaw-dropping performance skills illuminate "Songs for Nobodies."
Marvel as Thomas captures the sloshy showbiz panache of Judy Garland aching her way through the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer standard "Come Rain or Come Shine." And then contrast that with the twangy smooth timbre of Patsy Cline crooning the longing self-questioning song "Crazy."
Thomas also proves herself as a variety of storytelling characters. These include a British-French woman's harrowing tale of Edith Piaf saving an imprisoned French Resistance fighter and an enterprising New York journalist with a reputation-at-stake interview with a recalcitrant Billie Holiday.
Director Rob Lindley and music director Andra Velis Simon keep the proceedings breezy and involving throughout. The production designers, particularly Jesse Klug with her focused and starry lighting, all also brilliantly frame Thomas to consistently shine.
If there is one drawback, it's with Murray-Smith's final dramatic vignette. This involves an Irish nanny aboard a yacht who observes the tabloid-worthy extramarital affair between shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and opera star Maria Callas.
This story allows Thomas to cap the show with an impressive "Vissi D'arte" -- a pleading prayer about living only for art and love from the Puccini opera "Tosca." Yet the dramatic lead-up pales in comparison to the other characters' brushes with fame, which provide far more uplift and inspiration.
But this is just a minor quibble for such a brilliant showbiz showcase for Thomas and the Northlight artistic team supporting her. Thomas constantly dazzles with her acting and vocal versatility throughout "Songs for Nobodies," and she provides a convincing reason for theatergoers to venture back to Skokie following the pandemic shutdown.
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Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300, northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (no matinee Oct. 27); 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday (also 7 p.m. Oct. 10 and 17); through Oct. 31
Running time: About 95 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Nearby free garage and lot; valet parking also available
COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masks required