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Weekend Theater Review

From the First Chord, 'Last Session' Is Heartfelt

September 21, 1998|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It takes more than drug cocktails to fight AIDS. Humor, courage, compassion and companionship have also proven to be powerful weapons.

For the couple who wrote "The Last Session," music, too, would have to be included on that list. Steve Schalchlin was weak from battling the disease when he found new strength in writing songs about it. His longtime partner, Jim Brochu, urged him on and, in time, saw a way to weave the songs into a story. The resulting musical drew enthusiastic response in New York, where it ran off-off and then off-Broadway for nine months. Now the North Hollywood couple are welcoming the show back home, as Brochu directs its West Coast premiere in a Laguna Playhouse production at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach.

Written from the heart, Schalchlin's gospel-tinged pop songs exert a rare emotional pull. Brochu's story setting allows them to emerge realistically out of the action.

A semi-famous singer-songwriter named Gideon (Bob Stillman) has reserved a studio for what he expects to be his last recording session. The latest AIDS miracle drug has failed him, and he is tiring in his struggle against the disease. Unknown to all but one of the friends who will gather to help him record his songs, he plans to commit suicide the next day.

Soon, the other vocalists begin to arrive: Tryshia (Michele Mais), a powerhouse who only half-jokingly refers to herself as "the diva," and Vicki (Amy Coleman), a gravelly voiced hellion who was once Gideon's wife. As everyone's long history together erupts into fierce--if ultimately harmless--skirmishes, Jim (P.M. Howard), the recording engineer and another longtime friend, adds his own barbs over the intercom.

Another singer and friend can't be there, however, and so a young unknown is on his way to audition.

Buddy (Joel Traywick) is an evangelical Christian who has been singing some of Gideon's early religious songs on the gospel circuit. He arrives eager as a puppy to meet his idol. When he realizes that Gideon is gay, however, disgust and betrayal mix in his voice as he insists that a person can't be both Christian and homosexual.

Individually, Stillman, Traywick, Mais and Coleman are vocal dynamos; united in harmony, they are heaven on Earth. Their acting is a joy too. As these friends joust with one another, they deliver some of the most vicious--and screamingly funny--put-downs imaginable. Yet love is everywhere evident: in the gleam in an eye, a hand on a shoulder.

Brochu's script reserves too much information about Gideon's background until the second act. Also in Act 2, Brochu and Schalchlin indulge in flights of musical fantasy that emerge out of nowhere and seem jarringly out of place with the other songs.

The whole transcends the minor flaws of its parts, however. By the time the singers declare "You can only lift the darkness when you care," they have convinced the audience that they are delivering the gospel truth.

* "The Last Session," Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 11. $31-$38. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Bob Stillman: Gideon

Amy Coleman: Vicki

Joel Traywick: Buddy

Michele Mais: Tryshia

P.M. Howard: Jim

Music and lyrics by Steve Schalchlin; additional lyrics by John Bettis and Marie Cain; book by Jim Brochu. Directed by Jim Brochu. Set: Don Gruber. Costumes: Dwight Richard Odle. Lights: Paulie Jenkins. Musical supervision: Barry Fasman. Stage manager: Alice Harkins.

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