The Last Session, Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu's musical about AIDS, is likable, sentimental and absolute fluff. Full of melodrama, tearful songs and witty irony, the show somehow manages to reduce the devastating disease to a two-hour Hallmark moment.
It starts out on a dark enough note. Gideon (Richard Laub), a has-been pop star who has AIDS, wants to off himself. He doesn't want to put anyone through the trouble of caring for him through his sickness, especially not Jack, his lover of 13 years.
But before he does the nasty deed, he wants to make one last album (hence the title The Last Session), a heart-torn tribute to his one and only. "Jack," Gideon speaks into the microphone, with the lights down low and the piano music swelling, "thanks for the greatest 13 years of my life." He goes on to sing "Save Me a Seat," in which he admonishes Jack not to forget him.
Of course, Gideon, who accompanies himself on piano (Laub juggles his triple duty as piano player, actor and singer with a great deal of grace), can't make an album alone. He needs Jim (Paul Locklear) in the booth to do the technical stuff (Locklear makes this absolutely believable). And how would the audience discover Gideon's big plans without Jim? He is one of those characters whose main purpose is to get the plot moving. He doesn't like it that Gideon's going to kill himself, but all he does is listen, tell a few jokes and shake his head at the foolishness of the idea.
After the audiences finds out what's at stake, the backup singers enter. Tryshia (Regina Hearne) is a big, loud, brassy woman who calls herself the Diva. She's also one of Gideon's best friends but knows nothing of his dreadful plans. Neither does Vicki (Kara Greenberg), Gideon's hard-boozing, sex-starved ex-wife, who sells Mary Kay by the buckets while singing on the side. Buddy (Brandon Peters) is the stranger to the group. He's a pop-star wannabe who has traveled to L.A. from Texas. He's also a Bible-thumping proselyte who quotes scripture and hates homosexuality because God says it's wrong.
But Buddy doesn't make many friends in the City of Angels when he pulls out the Good Book. Vicki, who drips sarcasm, shrieks in mock fear. Buddy sings on Gideon's album only because he wants to "save" him.
These characters are familiar types who become interesting only because the performers and director Gregory Brown have gutsy determination to spark chemistry on stage. Hearne's Tryshia has a big, beautiful voice, while Greenberg's Vicki has the best lines in the show, which she delivers with wicked glee. She gets to ask virginal Buddy if he wants to "go out in the alley and play Sodom and Gomorrah." When she parks in a handicapped space, she storms into the studio screaming that she doesn't care if "Helen Fucking Keller is singing backup," she's not moving her car. Greenberg's hysterical irreverence is the backbone of the production.
But the most moving performance comes from Peters as the small-minded gospel-singing cracker who learns a thing or two over the night. Peters's bell-clear and sweetly unaffected voice goes a long way toward making some of these lyrics meaningful.
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But some of this music simply can't be saved. For instance, these lyrics: "You're alive on the outside / But you're the walking dead / Better grow good stuff on the inside / Or bad stuff'll grow instead."
Even Hallmark does it better than this.
-- Lee Williams
The Last Session runs through June 26 at The Little Room Downstairs Theater, 2326 Bissonnet, (713)523-0791. $10-$15.