In January 2008, I had the opportunity to study abroad in London during my sophomore year of college. On my second day in England, a group of my fellow students and I decided to visit one of the city’s most famous sites: the Tower of London. As the tour began, I casually looked around my assigned group, composed of about 20 people. Who should happen to be one of these 20 people but Wisconsin actor Bradley Whitford, aka Josh Lyman from "The West Wing," aka my favorite TV show. Frankly, I don’t know what I looked at more during that two-hour excursion: the highlights of the vast Tower of London or him.
This is a story of me, a nobody, encountering a somebody in an unexpected situation. You’ll hear about other encounters with somebodies during The Rep’s presentation of Joanna Murray Smith’s "Songs for Nobodies," but I guarantee you that the tales that you’ll hear during the performance will be far more impactful than the one I just told.
"Songs for Nobodies" shares five life-changing encounters between five everyday women whose lives have been touched in some way by five legendary divas: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas.
That alone is certainly a premise worthy of filling the newly renovated Stackner Cabaret. But what makes this story even more remarkable is that all of these ladies are portrayed by seasoned Milwaukee Rep performer Bethany Thomas. One woman’s portrayal of multiple backgrounds and personalities makes us wonder: What connections are formed between a famous voice and the people listening to it?
Although the promise of a few Judy Garland songs first drew me in, once I got full-wind of the premise of the show, my intrigue soon turned into an unrelenting determination to see this performance. My determination was proven right; I walked out of the theater on Wednesday evening profoundly satisfied and moved in a way that not even my devotion to all things Judy could have prepared me for.
Thomas, whose past Milwaukee Rep credits include "The Color Purple," "Ragtime" and "Man of La Mancha," is a force of nature in this production. Imitating one singer is one thing. Imitating five singers is another. But expertly recreating five unique and globally recognized voices, all while inserting your own unique interpretation? That is a rare talent indeed. But rest assured, it is a talent Thomas has in spades. From "Come Rain or Come Shine" to "Strange Fruit," every performance was an eerie replica of the legend's beloved version.
But as many great singers have said, hitting the right notes is only half the battle. In order to perform a song in a way that will have a profound and lasting impact, a singer must feel the words and be completely committed the song’s message. Thomas proves throughout the 90-minute running time that she is as capable of an actress as she is a singer. It is no stretch of the imagination to understand the range of personalities she is embodying on the stage; let’s face it, there aren’t many shows out there where you can say the main actress effortlessly transforms from an English librarian to an Irish nanny to Patsy Cline in the blink of an eye.
I’m sure there’s been times a time in your life where we have felt like nobody, your problems seeming commonplace, your insecurities uninspired. Even your hopes and aspirations can sometimes feel painfully unoriginal. But sitting in the Stackner Cabaret, surrounded by perceived nobodies who are in reality somebodies, can only be described as comforting. Everyone has something that they are taking into the theater, either a public struggle or a private struggle that’s too painful to be shared in the open. "Songs for Nobodies" shows that our individual stories are really not all that different from one another. If we all take a moment to recognize our common ground, perhaps a renewed commitment to self-acceptance and a greater understanding of each other will soon follow.
"Songs for Nobodies" runs through Nov. 4 in the newly renovated Stackner Cabaret. Tickets are available at MilwaukeeRep.com, by phone at (414) 224-9490 or at the ticket office at 108 E. Wells St.