This cathartic and often hilarious musical chronicle of a once-famous AIDS-inflicted singer-songwriter’s attempt to record a final, life-defining album has traveled an ever-ascending road of success since it was first workshopped at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Cinegrill in March 1996. Following a 1998 Obie-nominated run at New York’s 47th Street Theatre and a highly acclaimed outing at the Laguna Playhouse in New York, “The Last Session” has found a perfect venue at West Hollywood’s Tiffany Theatre. Jim Brochu’s emotionally manipulative book is slight on thematic development but still offers a compelling framework for Steve Schalchlin’s expansive, tone-poem-like songs, performed by a monumentally talented ensemble.
Feeling he is losing the battle to the virus, HIV-positive Gideon (Bob Stillman) has decided to record an album as a way to sum up his life experience and as a last love letter to his life partner, the absent but much mentioned Jack. His plan to end his life the next day with a drug overdose is known to recording engineer Jim (P.M. Howard), but not to former wife, Vicki (Amy Coleman), and close friend Tryshia (Michele Mais), the two backup singers he has called to Jim’s recording studio to assist him on the album. Complicating Gideon’s plans is the arrival of the young Southern fundamentalist Buddy (Joel Traywick), who has manipulated himself into the session as the needed third vocal backup.
Aided immensely by Don Gruber’s quite believable recording studio setting, Brochu’s economical staging creates a perfect balance of music and between-number interplay among the softly whimsical Gideon, the larger-than-life earth mother Tryshia, the outrageous, life-hardened Vicki and the thoroughly callow Buddy, whose Christian sensibilities are shocked and repulsed by Gideon’s life choices.
Musically, the production is a constantly rewarding marriage of singer and song. Stillman, who also provides excellent onstage keyboard accompaniment, offers light but still dramatically fulfilling interpretations of the fatalistic “Save Me a Seat,” the condemning “(At Least) I Know What’s Killing Me” and the hauntingly introspective “Connected.”
In sharp vocal contrast to the smooth-voiced Stillman, Coleman’s Janis Joplinesque Vicki simply rips through “Somebody’s Friend,” an irony-filled statement about the hope and hopelessness endured by AIDS victims. And Mais is a soulful tower of power as she envelops the lead vocal duties on Gideon’s ode to his parents, “The Preacher and the Nurse,” and the life-affirming “The Singer and the Song.”
Within the production’s overall vocal excellence, Traywick’s soaring tenor stands out as a memorable thing of beauty, especially on “Going It Alone” (a duet with Stillman). The full ensemble proves how magnificently all the voices can blend in the rousing show-closer, “When You Care,” which also features the joyous, pre-recorded voices of the Heaven Bound Sound Choir.
Howard offers a much-needed emotion-settling presence as the low-keyed but sardonic Jim. He also proves to be an adroit onstage guitarist on “Somebody’s Friend.”
The excellent lighting and sound designs of Paulie Jenkins and David Edwards, respectively, do much to enhance the flow of this worthy work.