Actor playing character based on himself in The Last Session is a gift

Review By Tom Mcelfresh

(L-R) Spring Starr Pillow, Todd Almond, Steve Schalchlin, Deb Girdler and Terry LaBolt in The Last Session

What we should all do is form an orderly line up at 12th and Vine, file into the lobby of Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati (ETC), shake the hand of producing director D. Lynn Meyers and speak some obliging thank yous to her ó for bringing singer-songwriter-actor Steve Schalchlin (said Shacklin) to town, albeit briefly, to appear, more or less as himself, in his energizing musical, The Last Session. Which is not to say that the production is untroubled. It is. But, it's also a gift, and a rousing way for ETC to bring down the curtain on its successful, 15th anniversary season. Unhappily, there are only six Sessions: July 11-15.

Meyers likes to say that ETCís Off-Center/On-Stage series of less conventional material is "all about ideas." Last Session is certainly that. It investigates the fright, frustration, anger and depression that attend the treatment of AIDS. And it asserts, then demonstrates that these are fit and proper topics for a pocket musical. Singing Schalchlin's grave thoughts on the subject give them power, point and poignancy ó as well as wit and no small measure of mordant humor.

The songs of The Last Session came along before Jim Brochu's script. At a very low ebb in his battle with AIDS, Schalchlin's partner suggested to him that he write his pain into music. (In the play, a character says, "Take the pain and turn it into a melody. Take the hopelessness and turn it into a song.") Schalchlin took the challenge. He deals with his own memorial service in "Save Me a Seat," his therapy in "The Group" and the lethal nature of some AIDS treatments in "Friendly Fire." Most memorably, he deals with the isolation of the disease and the sweetness of a partnerís support in "Going It Alone": "Can we really say we're out there on our own? When together we've been going it alone."

Songs in hand, Brochu created the concept and characters that make up the slight script. Singer-songwriter Gideon (Schalchlin) has full blown AIDS. He is worn out, as much from the treatment as from the disease, and has decided to end his life. He schedules a last recording session in which to make a final album of songs, mostly for the partner he will leave behind. For the session he books two rival backup singers who abhor each other, Vicki (Deb Girdler) and Tryshia (Spring Starr Pillow). Gospel singer Buddy (Todd Almond, last seen at ETC as drag queen Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch), cheats his way into the session, stealing the work from another backup singer. Terry LaBolt, who also staged the piece, appears briefly as a recording engineer with a pungent sense of humor.

Buddy idolizes Gideon until he learns that his idol is gay and dying. Then he turns revivalist and attempts to convert Gideon and convince him to give up the sin of homosexuality. Some converting gets done, but it's Buddy who does the changing. And, yes, Gideon changes his mind.

Working with minimal script material, Girdler, Pillow and Almond craft interesting characters. Each of the singers gets an opportunity to shine and makes much of it: Girdler in "Somebodyís Friend," Pillow in "The Singer and the Song" and Almond most particularly in "Friendly Fire."

This is the first time, apart from some fill-in performances during the New York and Los Angeles runs, that Steve Schalchlin has signed on to play Gideon. Casting him is both a grand thing and a not-so-grand thing for ETC's production. His performance, haunted as it is by reality, is entirely engaging and persuasive. However, his vibrant reality creates a schism in the show. The songs are both author Steve's life and character Gideon's life. But, the script is Gideon's fiction alone. With another actor in the role, there would be no baggage. Script and score could merge fluidly. Having the real Steve there makes the shenanigans of the backup singers seem contrived and not a little silly.

Schalchlin's diary of his progress with AIDS is open to the public at his extraordinary web site: http://www.bonusround.com/, as are the lyrics to all the songs in The Last Session, plus others.

Thanks, Lynn.