Debby Lennon channels five legendary singers in ‘Songs for Nobodies’
- Written by Tina Farmer
After seeing Debby Lennon’s performance in Max and Louie Productions’ “Songs for Nobodies,” I’m hard pressed to name someone I’d rather see in the show. Joanna Murray-Smith’s play with music features a technically challenging script, with multiple dialects required, and signature songs that are even more demanding. As it turns out, the show is the perfect vehicle for the talented Debby Lennon to capture our hearts and command attention. Lennon effortlessly mixes stunning renditions and deft storytelling, demonstrating her considerable abilities without dropping a cue, note or prop.
The emotionally resonant and well-paced show introduces five nobodies who each share an unexpected connection to a different famous vocalist. Restroom attendant Beatrice Ethel Appleton, who’s unexpectedly single again, fixes Judy Garland’s hem while pouring her heart and tears out to her idol. Pearl Avalon, an usher in Kansas City, meets Patsy Cline on the night of her ill-fated flight. A lonely, single librarian named Edie Delamotte admires Edith Piaf. Too Junior Jones a reporter looking for her big break, gets a laugh and a story from Billie Holiday. A young Irish nanny named Oria McDonagh travels the Mediterranean Sea while learning about attraction and infidelity From Maria Callas.
Each woman’s story leads to a song or two and Lennon’s renditions get more precise and ethereal as the show continues, revealing the purpose of the fond, but loosely connected stories. Though she never hits an off note, the structure of the show ensures that the best numbers, Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Callas’ “Vissi d’arte” follow one after the other, leaving the audience speechless in admiration. Lennon, in a simple black dress that moves nicely, uses small props and dons costume accessory pieces, but relies mostly on her voice, expression and movement to capture the singers and the women they meet.
Dunsai Dai’s effectively minimalist set design features an opaque scrim, allowing the audience to see Lennon’s accompanists, musical direct Nicolas Valdez, bassist Jake Stergos and percussionist Keith Bowman. Projected imagery, by Kevin Bowman, establishes place and time, guiding the audience through each homage. Each story’s theme reveals something about the artist and the everywoman she encounters, but they are individual encounters with the only connective thread the memory each of the “nobodies” has from that moment.
Lennon and director Pamela Hunt navigate the transitions successfully, both within and between the scenes, and dialect coach Pamela Reckamp turns in excellent work as well. But, by providing dialogue for each of the singers, the script and its structure create an instance of appropriation that is respectfully executed, but somewhat uncomfortable. In a show like this, where the focus is on the artist’s work, close vocal imitation on the songs demonstrates control, ability and nuance; putting words in the artist’s mouth seems unnecessary. Thankfully, Lennon’s soulful renditions are the star of the show and the stories, no matter how charmingly contrived, are mere
“Songs for Nobodies,” which ran through February 2, is a collection of vignettes created to showcase the songs of five renowned singers: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billy Holiday and Maria Callas. There’s not a plotline to connect the artists, but fortunately, in the Max and Louie production, the individual stories feel authentically connected to the songs. As importantly, the chosen songs are heartbreaking, resonant and expertly interpreted, enabling Lennon to hold us under her spell from the first note through the last.