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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Session
By Elyse Sommer
When a musical with a cast of five opens in a small Off-Broadway house that seats just 293 people, you usually expect a revue--songs accompanied by a single instrument or a small group and some sort of connecting thread to make it all hang together. The thread connecting the ten songs of The Last Session is a before-I-die recording session by rock-gospel musician with AIDS and the underlying theme of tolerance embodied by a young Christian Right Bible thumper.
If you've got your finger on the click-off button, hold it. . .
The Last Session combines an affecting story, songs you'll want to hear again, and an ensemble with acting talents to match their spectacular singing. In short, it's original and funny, enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable. It is not a depressing show about a disturbing subject. The little debates between Gideon (Bob Stillman) the main character and Buddy (Stephen Bienskie) his young counterpoint, are neither preachy or polemical and the songs don't require you to be a gospel-rock enthusiast to respond to the emotions they arouse.
Funny? Enlightening? Enjoyable? Trust me. This life affirming little musical packs it all in, and with a bigger bang than many a glitzier, neon-light fronted show. Predecessors it will most bring to mind are Rent and Angels in America. However, this more modest production which is probably best categorized as musical stand-up-and-sing comedy -- no dancing, no big production numbers -- is very much fueled by its own very unique energies and strengths.
To sum up the story: We find Gideon, a gospel to pop crossover musician, at his keyboard in a recording studio. He is recording a sort of musical diary upon completion of which he plans to take his life. He and the studio engineer Jim ( Dean Bradshaw) are soon joined by two warring singers with whom he's worked in the past, Tryshia ( Grace Garland) and Vicki ( Amy Coleman). To round out the ensemble, there's a surprising replacement for the third backup singer Gideon's invited -- a young born-again Christian named Buddy for whom Gideon has been a role model for his own ambition to move from gospel to pop rock--until he discovers that his idol is gay or as Gideon himself puts it -- "as faggy as I can get without doing Bette Davis impressions."
I used the word diary to describe the album because the recording session during which this story unfolds is a fictionalized and more tightly focused version of the autobiographical notes that the composer, Steve Schalchlin, has been keeping about his own life in a diary shared with as many as 1000 readers a day at his web site on the Internet, (see link in the background box at the end of this review). As the diary developed a fascinating life of its own, so this rather predictable setup of characters who seem to share little except their musical backgrounds, evolves into a drama that works on all levels. The suspense is not if he will or he won't , but why these people are here in this place and at this time and how they're going to change before the show ends. It works too because the book, like the music,, is plucked from the deepest recesses of the heart of Schalchlin's companion, Jim Brochu, who wrote the book and directs.
To itemize the assets of the actor-singers (I use the hyphenation because they are all strong on both counts:
With his tall, slim frame and shoulder-length hair, Bob Stillman is the epitome of everyone's vision of a rocker. Happily his voice delivers on the image. He is in full control of the keyboard as well, and according to the program credits contributed additional arrangements to the show.
The Buddy character, more than any other in this play, enters reeking of cliche. Yet, as written by Brochu and portrayed by Stephen Bienskie, he is the most fully realized and endearing member of the group. Unlike the Baptist character in Angels in America, there's no hint that he may himself be a closet Gay and the change he undergoes is convincing because it goes just so far. Even when Bienskie doesn't speak or sing his expressions are something to watch. His meltingly sweet voice is particularly outstanding in his big solo number "Going It Alone" at the end of the first act.
The two women also come across as enormously empathetic. Amy Coleman who's a young Bette Midler look-alike, (though slimmer and prettier), gets the best lines as tough but vulnerable Vicki. Her voice has a touch of all the great babes of song. Grace Garland's Tryshia has warmth and the right regal touch to warrant the nickname Diva with a voice full of Soul.. That leaves Dean Bradshaw who is more off-stage than on but contributes importantly wherever he is.
In case you want to know where any of the songs are the kind you're going to hum when you leave? The answer is No. These are less sing-along hits than sung chronicles or musical sidebars to detail the inner landscapes behind the scenes that build the dramatic arc. If I had to pick out one or two standouts from the ten, I'd opt for Buddy's "Going It Alone" and the one that comes closest to being a real production number, "Friendly Fire" (lyrics by Maria Cain). Also worth mentioning: Michael D. Gaylord's vocal arrangements which aptly integrate solos, duets and ensemble numbers, and Eric Lowell Renschler's set which, though not a dazzler in the big musical tradition, does its job with style.
If audiences and critics don't compare The Last Session to more ambitious musicals, the show should enjoy the decent run it deserves. It should also travel well--perhaps not to the larger Broadway house Steve Schalchlin dreams of in his diary -- but across the country to small regional theaters where this set could be even more simplified. After all, the real nuts and bolts holding this together are the 5 singer-actors and the uniquely heart-warming script and score. The latter are in place and, as good as this cast is, I'm optimistic that there are other young performers out there who could do justice to both script and music.