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The Last Session
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Steve Schalchlin, music/lyrics; Jim Brochu, book; John Bettis/Marie Cain, additional lyrics

At: Refuge Theatre Project @ Atlas. Art Studio, 4809 N. Ravenswood Ave. Tickets:; $30. Runs through: Dec. 2

Four extremely gifted performers power through a dozen songs in this gospel-rock flavored chamber musical, written and set in 1997 at the height ( or depth ) of the AIDS crisis, when tens of thousands of Americans still were dying each year. Very much of its time period, The Last Session is dated but still has emotional power, similar to other "AIDS plays" such as The Normal Heart and As Is.

Unlike those plays, The Last Session has a restricted setting: one night in a small Los Angeles recording studio where singer-songwriter Gideon Wells ( Erik Pearson ), a self-described one-hit-wonder, is recording his last tracks with three back-up singers. Gideon has AIDS and plans to commit suicide, unable to endure the ravages of the disease and the terrible side-effects of then-available drugs ( AZT ). His unseen lover of 13 years doesn't know his plan, but Gideon's studio engineer ( Benjamin Baylon ) and back-up singers—two gals and a guy—eventually do and try to dissuade him.

Spicing the stew is substitute backup singer Buddy ( Ryan Armstrong ), a very young, Bible-carrying Baptist. "A man can't be a Christian and a homosexual," he says when he learns Gideon—whom Buddy idolizes—is gay. Even though the show's world is small, no character is fully-explored or developed, not even Gideon, but Buddy is the least dimensional and believable ( no fault of Armstrong's ). A singer-songwriter himself, he's a gospel star pursuing a crossover career in LA, and yet he's naÃŻve about gays, booze, drugs, sex and humor. Just a little much.

Of course, much exposition and emotion is channeled into the songs and most are gangbusters. In Act I, "The Preacher and the Nurse" fills in Gideon's backstory, while Act II's "Friendly Fire"—the shows' centerpiece number—powerfully describes one's body at war with itself from AIDS and nearly-poisonous drugs which cannot cure. Each back-up singers has several solos—Gideon is improbably generous in this respect—which allow them to display feelings and emotions beyond their diva bickering between songs ( some of which is funny-bitchy but often sounds artificial ).

The only musical accompaniment is Gideon at the piano ( Pearson also is the production's musical director ), which is more than sufficient to drive the powerful vocals by Pearson, Armstrong and Darilyn Burtley ( as Tryshia ) and Elizabeth Bollar ( as Vicki ). The women also adroitly deliver most of the laugh lines. Director Christopher Pazdernik has staged the show—which has no dance element and little scenery—very simply in the intimate Atlas Art Studio, the effect being that you're in the session with the artists.

FYI: The Last Session is heavily autobiographical. Schalchlin was at death's door in 1997 but survived with new medications. He's 65 today and an ardent LGBTQ activist.

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