Songs for Nobodies at People’s Light

Every now and then, you walk out of a theater so blown away by the show, you can’t imagine anything better. Such was the case at People’s Light where I saw “Songs for Nobodies.” I had known that one woman was to portray Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billy Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas, singing some of their songs, but I wasn’t prepared for the brilliant script by Joanna Murray-Smith or the commanding performance by Bethany Thomas.

            The show is much more than song. It begins with a toilet attendant reflecting on the nature of happiness. Is it real? Do you only realize it in retrospect? She is bemoaning the desertion of her husband when Judy Garland enters, after taking a break from her concert. They connect and soon, she is on the stage with Garland. And as we hear Garland sing “Come Rain or Come Shine,” we are reminded that life is “just one of those things” and that “days may be cloudy or sunny.”

            The second sequence is also about destiny. We meet Patsy Cline who sings “Stand by Your Man” even though “you’ll have bad times,” even though “you don’t understand.” But playwright Murray-Smith gives us so much more than the song. We learn that the last concert Cline sang was a benefit concert for an esteemed disc jockey who’d just died. Sadly, in her haste to leave Kansas City to get back to her young children, Cline died in a plane crash. She was 30 years old.

            We learn about Billie Holiday by a writer who wants to escape from the fashion pages to write seriously. After pleading with her editor at The New York Times, she is given the opportunity to write an 800 word essay interviewing Holiday. The great jazz singer, Holiday who at one point, after not responding to questions, asks the writer “what do happy people sing about?” She then sings the song that made her famous, “Strange Fruit,” a song banned in many places as it talks of “Black bodies swinging… from poplar trees.”

            There are stories about French singer Edith Piaf before we hear her sing “Non, je ne regrette rien.” (No, I regret nothing). Despite remaining in France during the Nazi occupation, she managed to help others escape. At 4’8”, her powerful voice was legendary.

            Maria Callas is the last of the divas in this 1:40 play. A great operatis soprano, Americans know her better as the woman left by Aristotle Onassis to court and marry Jacqueline Kennedy.  Callas too has a story as we learn of her shortened career. Here, she sings an aria from Verdi’s Tosca about a woman whose beloved, faces torture and execution.

            From the five “nobodies” that tell most of the story, to the five extraordinary vocalists, Bethany Thomas does it all. Close your eyes and you hear the operatic voice of one, the power of another, and softness of another. Her range is breath-taking. You would swear that you are hearing the original artists. She is amazing and is worth the price of admission alone.

            I never enjoyed learning so much as Thomas portrays the nobodies while they interact with the singers and inform us of their lives. Who’d have thought that five vignettes could do so much!

            After playing in Chicago at the Northlight Theatre where it got rave reviews early in 2020, the play was scheduled to be on the People’s Light stage that summer, but covid changed everything. Now, with Thomas and director Rob Lindley, they are presenting the show that was in Chicago, on the Malvern stage.

“Songs for Nobodies” by Joanna Murray-Smith at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA 19355, 610-644-3500,   Thru May 21, 2023

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: