Music and Lyrics by Steve Schalchlin
Additional Lyrice by John Bettis and Marie Cain
Written and Directed by Jim Brochu
47th Street Theatre / 304 West 47th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

I call it "the cry factor" I try to manage it at least once in every musical I write, and generally achieve it twice. It's not, obviously, appropriate to all musicals, but in any that wish to achieve catharsis–particularly in moments of emotional resolution or healing–it's an invaluable asset. The cry factor is in effect when a musical unfailingly brings real, earned tears to the audience's eyes. And here's the secret to doing it.

Placement. And architecture.

You target your moment of release, you build toward it in the scene and–this is crucial–you don't anticipate it in dialogue. (Rule of thumb for any musical number, really, but especially a "cry": you don't duplicate your efforts, you don't blow the content of the song in the scene preceding it.) All right. Now: You hit that point where you're on the brink of something...a communion of souls, a declaration of forgiveness, a flowering of long-unrequited love, the cherished advice that defines a life, a plea for help, some kind of cleansing, whatever the new emotional plateau is (and it has to be new; this won't work if you're going over old ground or taking the audience someplace they've already been in the show; taking them someplace they yearn for, absolutely, that fulfills a promise; but never someplace they've been). And once you arrive there, on that brink–you begin the song.

That's placement.

Then you deliver your moment of release–and it has to happen in the body of the song. It has to be the point of the song. The catharsis has to be musicalized, and the lyric so structured that you can damn near dictate the moment when the audience starts weeping. (It usually falls within the first third, just when the audience hears the message articulated–the rest of the number allows the feeling of release to spread and settle.)

That's song structure. Architecture.

Sound cynical? It's not, truly; just good clean craftsmanship. Sound manipulative? It is. But as comedian Dom Irrera says, "Not in a bad way." You have to get there honestly. Hardly anyone cries at a musical that doesn't earn the moment. Laughs, yes, different reflex. But cries? Faggeddaboudit.

The remarkable thing about the new off-Broadway offering "The Last Session" is that it manages to pull off this trick maybe four times in the evening. The absolutely astonishing thing is that it does so with source music numbers. "Source music" for those who don't know, is a term of art meaning music that comes from a source outside the characters, that is consciously acknowledged as music, rather than songs that are sung by characters in lieu of speech as they express themselves. A song heard on the radio, for example, is source music. Likewise, if a character says, "Let me sing you this tune I wrote," that's source music too...because it is defined as pre-existing, outside the characters' interaction. By its very nature, it defies the architecture and placement required for the cry factor.

For those reasons, source music is not conducive to any significant musical theatre catharsis. So how, then, does "The Last Session" manage the trick? And several times?

Because it fuses the function of character song with the nature of source music and effectively renders them the same thing, flip sides of each other. Because that blend is, rather ingeniously, built into the concept, into the very framework of the story.

The show is about Gideon (Bob Stillman) a pop singer-songwriter turned publisher with full-blown AIDS. He's written a cycle of songs about the experience. A cycle of songs that is to be his legacy–for he's tired of battling the illness, and intends, tomorrow, to open a bottle of pills, and kill himself. But tonight, in this L.A. recording studio, his goal is to record the songs for his lover and longtime companion. His engineer Jim (Dean Bradshaw) knows what Gideon's about and is none too pleased to be participating. Especially since he is honor bound to keep it secret from the others who will shortly be in attendance to sing additional vocals: black soul "diva" Tryshia (Grace Garland) and flamboyant hard rocker Vicki (Amy Coleman). A third colleague of Gideon's is also supposed to lend a hand, but he gets waylaid and another singer, unknown to the group, takes his place. This being a Message Service jockey named Buddy (Stephen Bienskie), who idolizes Gideon...and who also happens to be a fundamentalist Christian with the usual arsenal of FC reflexes when presented with certain information of a morally upsetting nature...

Author-director Jim Brochu is good at creating an atmosphere of easy intimacy (most recording studios are, trust me, pretty small), and at creating characters easy to bond with. Partly this is due to his use of archetypes of personality and music–the wise cracking engineer, the worldly black working mother (soul), the crude good-time gal with the secret heart o' gold (rock), and the deep south hick (country). But by putting a more dimensional, subtler character–Gideon (general pop)–in the center, and having them relate to him, they commensurately deepen. (They are also revealed to us in layers; each character has several revelations along the way.) And as the issues are frequently about life and death, there's not much in the way of trivialization either. (Though what there is seems stark: for all that Texas-boy Buddy has–inevitably–hidden resources and will be able to teach others as much as they teach him, his fundamentalist palaver is still made too easy a target for ridicule by the others, and kept that way for much too long.)

Though almost all the songs are an extension of Gideon's psyche, they cover versatile enough territory–and are cannily enough conceived and programmed–to speak for the others as well, who variously back each other up and take the solo spot. The craftsmanship of the lyrics is not, in theatrical terms, of the highest order–the big "sins," misaccents, false rhymes, etc. proliferate here and there–but even this is, amazingly, mitigated, because right at the top, we know we're in pop-land, in a milieu that supports such things; what would be violations in most theatrical contexts are here acceptable conventions of form. It also doesn't hurt the verisimilitude any that composer-lyricist Steve Schalchlin is himself a pop-songwriter living with AIDS. (Additional lyrics are provided by John Bettis and Marie Cain; the program does not specify authorship of individual numbers.) More, the tunes are high profile and hooky and allow the performers a lot of room to negotiate emotional terrain.

And what performers: Stillman, as Gideon, is not only haunted and vulnerable, he's also damned impressive; aside from being an expert all-purpose vocalist, he's the evening's sole musician and plays all the accompaniments (save one pre-recorded track near the end) on a synth-keyboard live, with enough verve to power a Broadway pit. Grace Garland can do that black thang with the best of them, Amy Coleman has a hard-edged voice from the screaming trenches that one can only describe as exquisitely damaged, and Stephen Bienskie's country licks are so convincing you can damn near picture the revival meetin'. They are all swell and all top to bottom authentic. (I don't mean to ignore Dean Bradshaw's engineer; he does it amusingly and well, but the part doesn't bring with it the same capacity for flash.)

All that acknowledged, "The Last Session" is hardly flawless. It betrays its L.A. roots now and then by being a little too glib; by turning its back on a genuinely rich moment for a surface jab...but these lapses are few, and ultimately forgivable, in light of the greater accomplishment. A little tougher to take are the odd violations of the play's reality. In an evening of something like "verité," one second act number ("Friendly Fire") is suddenly given a stylized staging...and later, the penultimate song ("The Singer and the Song"), though using the stylistic vocabulary of a pop number, comes as a spontaneous outgrowth of the book, and makes book references. You kinda-sorta go with it after a while, because you've made such an investment in the ride, and in the characters taking you on it...but boy, is it jarring. Surely there must have been a better way to solve that moment than changing the rules of the "reality."

Strictly speaking, save for that number, "The Last Session" has all the classic earmarks of a play with music, rather than a musical...yet it manages, by the sheer brute force of its mission, by the wholly unique duality of its source music score, to transcend the limitation, to say, "Yeah, I know I'm not doing this by the book, but guess what, I'm a musical anyway."

And probably it's worth an argument.

But it's hard to work up the conviction with all those damn tears in your eyes...

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