Review: “Songs from an Unmade Bed” (Pride Films & Plays)

Kevin Webb (right) and Jordan Phelps in "Songs From An Unmade Bed"
Kevin Webb (right) and Jordan Phelps in “Songs From An Unmade Bed”

Show: Songs from an Unmade Bed

Company: Pride Films & Plays

Venue: Apollo Studio Theater

Die Roll: 19

In its original incarnation, Songs from an Unmade Bed was a one-man show in New York. It was a celebration of sorts of the life of a single gay man in the city sung in 18 songs. You can see much of that production online, thanks to the YouTube channel of its star, Michael Winther. However, I’m going to recommend that you skip the computer screen-sized videos. The current production here in Chicago is life-sized, and even though it is staged in a relatively small room at the Apollo Theater’s subterranean studio space, it is a huge production when it comes to talent and execution.

Director Derek Van Barham took this song cycle and turned it into a play—a really good one, too. Instead of one man and a bed (along with a piano and a cello), we get two main characters who proceed through the ups and downs of various relationships with each other and other others. Additionally, a third singer/actor is brought into the mix as The Entertainer (portrayed by Tommy Thurston on the night I saw it… Jonas Davidow fills the role on other nights).

From the moment you enter the theater, Van Barham’s concept of the show is in full effect. The Entertainer is singing standards at a microphone, the bar is bustling, and the show’s stars, Kevin Webb and Jordan Phelps, move about the space as if the dimly lit world that they inhabit includes the audience. The easy-going feeling, the whisky-filled rocks glasses, the enjoyment of the crowd sets the tone for the evening’s entertainment. Once the lighting shifts and the action starts, Thurston moves away from the mic and takes a backseat except for a few times when a third, but silent, character is needed.

Webb is apparently the owner of the bed mentioned within the title. And it is frantically set-up as part of the first scene (and again in a beautiful call-back/reprise of blocking at the end, as well). The bed plays a minor role, but it is clearly there in the background of most scenes/songs. And it is true that each song is its own scene. At its core this piece remains a song cycle. There is about as much plot here as there is in Cats. But each vignette creates a bit more of the story of these characters. These two lovers who proceed through the ups and downs, the dedications and infidelities, the acceptance and the disgust which go along with loving another person.

The performers have similar vocal ranges, but completely different voice types, and that helps to carry the moods of the various songs. The songs were divvied up really well. Webb’s voice is more musical theatre. Phelps has the smoother sound one might associate with Harry Connick, Jr. Both have beautiful voices that lend credibility to their character choices. I felt that I knew their characters by the end, and that I’d been let in on an important bit of who they are.

Mark Campbell’s lyrics are biggest strength of the show. They are brilliant. And they give the actors so much to work with. It’s difficult to get such a perfect mix of poignancy, wit, bitterness, and contentment. The text is strong enough to hold up the music of 18 different composers (one for each song).

I want to return for a moment to the direction of the entire piece. This show could easily come off as nothing more than a concert. Even with the songs split between two singers, and an occasional duet, staging didn’t have to happen. But, so much was added to the piece through Van Barham’s choices and the actors’ interactions, and I can’t imagine seeing a better version of this play. Some of the songs (such as “The Man in the Starched White Shirt”) are sung by one actor interacting with a silent partner.  Others are sung by both, and involved beautiful snatches of choreography (like the gleefully wicked “I Want To Go Out Tonight”).  There is no listed choreographer in the program, so I don’t know if the moves were Van Barham’s, or if they come from the actors, or if there is some uncredited artist that deserves credit, but I can say that each time movement was incorporated it was purposeful. It was often fun and clever, and when it wasn’t there was a reason. The choreography carried oodles of meaning and filled in meaning whenever it was brought into the performance.

A quick “by the Numbers” kind of statistic: Four trains went overhead during the first act. The first one fit so perfectly between numbers that I initially wondered if it was a sound cue, rather than the El. Even though the CTA goes right above the theatre, the trains aren’t a distraction, largely because the show is entrancing.

Seldom does reviewing a show lead to me running out and buying the soundtrack. That being said, I am writing this review with Songs from an Unmade Bed coming out of my computer’s speakers.

The show closes April 27th, and the Apollo’s studio doesn’t have the largest number of seats. I’d go buy your ticket today, so you don’t miss this show.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Songs of sex and love hit all the right notes!

RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”