54 Below Sings The Last Session

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54 Below Sings The Last Session

Feinstein’s/54 Below, NYC, May 16, 2019

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg for Cabaret Scenes

Musicals have been written for many reasons, both commercial and personal, but The Last Session may be the only show written to literally save the songwriter’s life. As explained by Jim Brochu, co-author of the show and life partner of the songwriter Steve Schalchlin, during the course of this beautiful and emotional evening, he kept assigning topics to his love to keep him moving forward in his battle with AIDS. Perhaps it was this urgency and reality that imbued the material with the power that the audience could still react to more than two decades after it was first performed in public. (Additional lyrics were provided by John Bettis and Marie Cain.


Schalchlin was on hand to open the program with the deeply personal “The Faces in the Music,” one of two songs cut from the original production. (“We can’t remember what the other one was,” said Brochu.

“Because it was terrible,” responded the songwriter.) He later returned to share “Going It Alone” with young Blake Zolfo, which granted the number a sense of the passage of time and of kinship.

A dazzling group of singers were gathered together to celebrate the score. “Volcanic” is a suitable description for Danette Sheppard-Vaughn as she tore apart “The Preacher and the Nurse,” a gospel-influenced belt number. Brian Krinsky brought macho power to the military-themed “Friendly Fire,” and Kelli Rabke delivered deeply felt emotions with the disturbing “The Group.” Jessica Handy offered up the searing “Somebody’s Friend” with admirable energy and vocal dynamics.

Special appearances were made by cabaret’s beloved Natalie Douglas (who had almost been in the original production but was declared too young at the time) singing “Shades of Blue” with her patented combination of dignity and power, and by Bob Stillman, who was the original New York lead, recreating his rockabilly showstopper “At Least I Know.”

Brochu and Schalchlin provided a great deal of interesting and amusing information about the material, from its inception to its history to the inspiration of individual songs, weaving in such celebrity names as Rue McClenahan, Anson Williams, and Dr. Bruce Dorsey, who was in attendance. Music director John Fischer, bassist Jerry DeVore, and guitarist Bill Goffi provided solid support for the varied voices in concert.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."