Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
The Last Session at The Laguna Playhouse
In the beautiful little town of Laguna Beach, California, about 35 miles from the heart of Los Angeles, there is a beautiful theatre called The Laguna Playhouse. Nestled off a canyon road about a half mile from the Pacific, The Laguna Playhouse is the site of the West Coast Premiere of the talk of Talkin' Broadway, the off-Broadway musical hit, The Last Session, a 1998 nominee for Best Musical by both the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League.
As we all know so well, the musical, with music and lyrics by Steve Schalchlin and book by Jim Brochu (who also directed the production both here and in New York), is the story of Gideon (Bob Stillman), a gay singer-songwriter with AIDS who has decided to commit suicide. The character of Gideon is clearly based on composer Schalchlin, who has made no secret of the fact that he has escaped HIV-related death at least three times and was convinced by his own companion of fourteen years, Brochu, to write his feelings out as songs. As Schalchlin and Brochu are quick to tell, one song turned into several, and eventually Schalchlin convinced Brochu, an author and theater director by profession, to craft a book for this song cycle which clearly illustrate aspects of Schalchlin's Southern, Christian and rock-and-roll roots.
On the night before the day Gideon has chosen to be his last, he has decided to record his story in song, in one last recording session. By utilizing the device in which Gideon addresses the work to his longtime companion who is out of town, Brochu has cleverly allowed the audience to fill in as the natural recipient of the passion and emotion that Gideon relates on this, his intended final night on Earth.
To help in the studio, Gideon has asked a couple of his friends to sing with him, and with them and his recording engineer, Jim (P. M. Howard), he is set to record his last testament. The show opens with the lights coming up on a one-room recording studio as Gideon records the first of what proves to be an evening chock full of all types of emotion. This show is unabashedly sentimental, with Brochu's book always lifting us out of the clutches of despair just in the nick of time with a laugh (large or small, depending on what's necessary).
With Stillman's angelic interpretation of "Save Me A Seat", a song which guides us into the thoughts of this man who is already planning what his memorial service will be like and how he'll always be there for his surviving companion, we know we're in for quite a ride. (And he's really playing his own keyboard!) As he begins to sing "Connected", the track is ruined by the entrance of one of Gideon's vocal accompanists, the self-described diva, Tryshia (Michele Mais), followed by the appearance of the other of Gideon's female singer accompanists, Vicki (Amy Coleman), another force of nature. There is clearly a complex history between and among these three singers and Jim, and the sparks start flying with the clash of wills.
Into the fray walks Buddy (Joel "Joey" Traywick), the third of Gideon's accompanists, a young, preaching fundamentalist Christian, who has sneaked into the session in order to sing with and show his songs to Gideon. When he realizes that Gideon is an unashamed homosexual and the son of a preacher and thus able to battle verse-for-verse and psalm-for-psalm, more sparks fly when the challenge erupts, "Can a person be gay and a Christian?" The songs are vehicles by which we are introduced to Gideon's upbringing ("The Preacher and the Nurse") and the amazing voices of Mais, Coleman and Traywick. Incredible.
Two of the songs in the first act are standouts for me: "Somebody's Friend", demonstrating the unique power and beauty of Amy Coleman's instrument, about the hopes and disappointments of miracle cures; and "The Group", about the healing and painful nature of support groups for fellow sufferers, which also shows the audience Mais's incredible gift. This song illustrates the idea that the lead vocal in a song can be, like a baton, passed from person to person, building upon each who possessed it before.
"Going It Alone", eventually sung as a duet with Gideon and a reluctant and non-understanding Buddy, is a song about the nature of disease and the loneliness inherent in it - for all its victims, both the sufferers and those suffering with them. Traywick, first looked upon as the classic, hokey nerd, dressed in ill-fitting shiny pants, sings that song as though he was born to sing it. As it comes to an end, Buddy is brought to a point of utter confusion, and the audience is given an intermission during which to digest it all.
Act Two begins with more Bible-battle of wits and scripture, and Brochu's book continues to sparkle with comic lines and levity arriving at perfect and unexpected moments. There's the song in which Gideon tells off those who question his life choices with their expressions of ignorance ("At Least I Know What's Killing Me") and the comedic fantasy of "Friendly Fire", which compares the HIV-infected body to a battlefield in any war-ravaged region of the globe.
Then comes THE SONG. In "Connected", Gideon tells the story (that we all know is true, because we know that Steve Schalchlin wrote this song in a hospital bed "as my last gasp before I was going to be dead") of his first visit to an emergency room through to his realization that there is a direct parallel between an I-V tube and the rest of humanity. Both are nurturers of the human being. In other words, we need food for sustenance of the body; we need love and connection for sustenance of the soul. This is one more song that packs such an emotional wallop that, at its conclusion, you don't know whether to cry quietly in your seat or give it the biggest ovation possible. (I think I did a little of both.)
Next comes the section of the show in which, having discovered Gideon's suicide plan, Vicki and Tryshia attempt to convince Gideon how important he is to them and Jack (the never-seen out-of-town lover) and all of the others whom his life has touched. More emotions are laid bare as Tryshia sings "The Singer and the Song", which explains with Mais' golden voice how much Gideon is needed, and, finally, these four unbelievably talented performers join together to sing the song that Buddy had originally wanted Gideon to hear, "When You Care".
These performers are exceptional. As I said, Bob Stillman as Gideon has a sweet James Taylor-esque vocal quality that comforts you while making your feelings soar - his voice is perfection. As Tryshia, Michele Mais (or "Maisey") can knock your socks off with her gospel-like soul and emotion-laden turns of her syrupy voice. Amy Coleman (as Vickie) creates quite a character, a tragic clown possessing a voice with unstoppable power. I've NEVER heard a voice like hers. And as the antagonistic, self-righteous Buddy, Joey Traywick explodes on the scene with comic timing, a contagious youthful exuberance and an ability to draw the tears right out of you. As Jim, P. M. Howard is truly funny, wringing laughter out of every sarcastic utterance, while letting on how upset he is about Gideon's decision to end his life. I wonder if there will ever be a better cast assembled for this piece - they are an outstanding ensemble.
The Last Session is one hell of a show, transcending race, orientation, religion and gender. Though some might feel that it wears its heart on its sleeve and lacks subtlety, I say bully to them. This show makes the point that each life has value, and that we should be tolerant and understanding of one another. Though not the best musical or play ever constructed, I've never seen a show that worked better. It is about being human. Its message is eternal - even though one day (God willing) the ravages of AIDS will be a distant memory, this play will remain relevant always. It expresses through humor and poignancy, while celebrating hope, that life is worth living, and that we are all vital to so many others in ways we might not ever realize. We must never forget that we're all in this together.
So, I urge you to see The Last Session if you can (it runs in Laguna until October 11), and I thank Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu for reminding us that we are all "Connected".-- Jerry Howard