Review “The Last Session” (Refuge Theatre Project): Authentic and Uplifting!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018 Permalink

Refuge Theatre Project presents the Chicago premiere of THE LAST SESSION. 

The creative team of Steve Schalchlin (music and lyrics) and Jim Brochu (book) tell the story of a composer with AIDS in 1990s. At that point in history, the disease carried a death sentence. Inspired by Schalchlin’s personal struggle with AIDS, the show has Gideon, a composer, gathering his friends in the studio to record his final album. Although the audience finds out in the initial first few minutes that Gideon plans to commit suicide, his friends are unaware. They arrive fully charged to sing and unpack their own baggage.

The premise sounds heavy but the show is fairly uplifting. Under Director Christopher Pazdernik, the crackerjack supporting cast finds the comedy in the drama. At my performance, understudy Josiah Haugen (Gideon-u/s) played the lead. Even though Haugen did a fine job in his Chicago theatrical debut, it was the rest of the ensemble that tethered me to the story.

Brochu gave all the characters strong backstories. And this cast embodies their personas. Liz Bollar (Vicki) bulldozes her way into the studio and never lets up. She is hilariously and unapologetically brazen. Bollar contrasts beautifully with the sophisticated Darilyn Burtley. The self-professed diva, Burtley, maintains a controlled professionalism. Her personal angst only apparent by her tear-stained cheeks during an emotional song or exchange. Completing the chorus, Ryan Armstrong (Buddy) is a wide-eyed hick trying to crossover from Christian to pop music. While his innocence makes him the butt of many jokes, his ignorance drives the tension for Gideon’s last hurrah. 

Despite the mismatched personalities, the ensemble comes together in gorgeous harmonies under the musical direction of Erik Pearson (Gideon). Schalchlin’s songs are an intimate look into a person dying. One song is a graphic and playful description to the war inside him. Another is a love letter to his long-term partner. With passion and commanding pipes, Bollar, Burtley and Armstrong make the score a series of showstopping songs.

THE LAST SESSION is performed in a studio adding to its authenticity. Although there is a challenge to see some of the action, we are like flies on the wall as a group of people come together to make art. THE LAST SESSION is a session worth attending. It is a reminder of the power of friendship in facing life and death.             

Running Time: Two hours includes an intermission

At Atlas Art Studio, 4809 N. Ravenswood 

Music and lyrics by Steve Schalchlin 

Book by Jim Brochu

Additional lyrics by John Bettis and Marie Cain

Directed by Christopher Pazdernik

Music directed by Erik Pearson

Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 7pm

Thru December 2nd

Tickets at RefugeTheatre.com

Production photos by Rob Riddle of Ghost Light Foto

For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago

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