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For Gay Pride... The Last Session, Take 2

We haven't heard the last of The Last Session, as there's a new recording from a London production. This week of Gay Pride seems an appropriate time to look again at this story about a gay man facing various challenges with his relationship, health, and very life—as well as facing an unexpected guest adding insult to injury with the introduction of homophobia and religious-based judgment.


JAY Records

The Last Session takes place in "real time" in a studio as what's planned as a recording session not only brings up memories and old wounds, but also a farewell to the musician, Gideon, at the center of the situation. He's a gay man who's been very ill with AIDS and, unknown to most of the participants, he plans to commit suicide. Or, as he puts it, "surrender." As the cathartic and revealing songfest proceeds, we learn about his struggles and strengths. And there's plenty of fight left in him, as it turns out. Originally written in the 1990s, the issues covered still resonate, but experiencing it again now, it's informed by the hope of progress in the treatment of AIDS as well as the fairer legal and social treatment of the gay population. And it resonates in a different way with the perspective provided by the distance of time having passed and the happy survival of the AIDS-stricken songwriter whose own experiences inspired the piece. It's still set in 1996.

Indeed, the true story behind The Last Session and composer-lyricist Steve Schalchlin and the play's own history is perhaps even more inspiring and compelling than the play. And that's saying a lot. There's a love story and personal/professional supportive collaboration between the songwriter and his partner, Jim Brochu. Mr. Brochu, somewhat of a Renaissance man, not only urged the songsmithing as witness and a kind of therapy, but created a script around the material and directed the piece in its initial presentations. One could make a whole autobiographical play about how the piece was developed, built, shared with followers in the earlier days of Internet-based previews, plus productions starting in New York City and subsequent ones around the country, and now in London (due to the remembered impact all those years ago). The short answer to whether the new recording feels different than the original cast album from 1997 is "yes." Guy Retallack directed the London version which record producer John Yap saw in its London run and, thankfully, chose to preserve. The material is basically the same and, while it hasn't been totally revamped, the vocal and instrumental sounds make for a real change from that original recording which I've pulled off my shelf again for a refresher course. Of special note is a full-length bonus track of "Shades of Blue," originally intended to be heard only in snippets as part of a sound check.

While taking nothing away from the earlier recording, which featured Bob Stillman as Gideon, singing and playing keyboards (and providing some additional arrangements), there are different energies and vocal styles comparing the casts. Notable is that feelings like anger and bitterness (raging or suppressed) come out in other levels at various points. Ditto for irony, rue, tension, and celebratory moments. There's a change in genre approach, too, with more or less "attack" in the gospel department. And, while the project began when Mr. Schalchlin was very possibly facing death from a form of pneumonia related to full-blown AIDS, the happiest kind of real-life spoiler alert is that, thanks to trial medications, medical advances and care, perseverance, and love, he is very much alive and well all these years later, and creatively active. For those not familiar with The Last Session, however, I won't give spoilers about how the fictional plot ends with the suicide-determined Gideon and the full reactions of his colleagues and friends.

Darren Day is Gideon here and is a formidable presence, evoking much sympathy and respect. He is familiar to musical theatre followers, especially of British casts, for his performances in Joseph ..., Godspell, Grease, and Great Expectations. He touches our emotions with the sung anthems and the separately tracked spoken messages intended as post-mortem explanations to his absent lover are heartbreaking, as well. There are more messages recorded for this version, so we get a better sense of the relationship and their understanding about distance's impact. Particularly striking is how Day handles stepping back from his own isolating experience and considering how lonely the ordeal has been for his lover, in "Going It Alone" ("Have I put you through some private kind of hell/ I'd have to read your mind to even tell"). And powerful is his mix of rage and dignity about being honest about his own sexual identity, illness, and adversaries in the dramatic "At Least I Know What's Killing Me." ("You're alive on the outside/ But you're the walking dead/....At least I know the enemy/ I know, I know you disagree...") An interesting side note which must inform his performance is that Day has been open in interviews about his own personal ups and downs and his own suicide attempt.

The added conflict comes with the character of Buddy, portrayed here with captivating energy and developing understanding by A J Dean. Gideon is Buddy's musical idol and he eagerly comes in to audition as a sub for an unavailable bandmember, unaware of Gideon's sexuality or health condition and, as a fundamentalist Christian, recoils and is ready to leave. Asked to sing some of Gideon's most personal material, the young man's eyes are opened as emotions and experiences come to be viscerally understood. We don't get a song from Buddy's religious perspective, as the songs came before the secondary characters were created, so they are from Gideon/Schalchlin's point of view. But hearing Buddy put himself in someone else's shoes by reading the personal thoughts of another ("Going It Alone" and "Friendly Fire") become potent consciousness-raising experiences. The "Friendly Fire" set piece has some spiffy fun borrowing melodies from the armed forces' theme songs and the inclusion of a sergeant persona to make the AIDS fight literally a war, with all its regimental flourishes and spouting of brainwashing pep talks. Ron Elmslie ably takes on the sergeant bit, the minor role (as heard on disc) of the studio engineer, and effectively accompanies on guitar on two numbers.

Tom Turner is music director, and the composer's arrangements and Michael Gaylord's vocal arrangements are used, with most of the piano score being new, as the electronic keyboard of the New York cast album is not front and center.

Restored to "The Group," the number detailing the attitudes by a very mixed bag of participants in a group therapy sharing session, is the story of Jamie, a heterosexual guy who resents being branded as an AIDS patient partially because it makes people assume he's homosexual. We learn that Jamie's anti-gay attitude was blurted out, despite his knowing that he's among some afflicted gays, thus adding prejudice and name-calling to fires.

While the generous-sized billing of Marie Cain and John Bettis for "additional lyrics" is not explained here, referring to past credits—such as the 1997 album—confirms that each provided words for a single number: Cain for "Friendly Fire" and Bettis on the company finale "When You Care," a full-out heart-stopper of galvanizing inspiration that's direct and basically human/humane as can be.

Unlike some JAY Records releases, there's no lyric booklet and only brief liner notes and just a few photos. But, more in their tradition, the recording crackles with energy and drama, capturing the performance of a committed cast-in a show with a lot to say (still).

- Rob Lester

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