Swan Song

Tuesday November 28, 06
by Dalt Wonk, Gambit Weekly

 Swan Song

By Dalt Wonk

Phyllis Hyman was a singer -- one of those wonderful, sad, gifted figures who got lost in the byways of fame. Her personal demons overcame her, as one bio puts it, and those demons included alcohol, plus some extra pounds on what had been a strikingly slender figure, plus manic depression. She committed suicide in 1995.

Anthony Bean, founder and artistic director of the theater bearing his name, has written and directed a show he calls "a jazzical play" about the last days of this remarkable vocalist.

Living All Alone: The Phyllis Hyman Story, currently receiving its world premiere, is really more of a concert than a play, although we do get some privileged peeps into Phyllis' backstage life.

Phyllis Hyman (Paris Robertson) enjoyed the highs of a successful singing career and suffered the lows of manic depression.
These dressing room scenes are spoken, not sung. They are meant to give us a sense of Phyllis' troubled life. Is she expressing those inner conflicts in her songs? Or do the songs give her an escape from the hopelessness that is besetting her? Maybe both.

In any case, the emotions of the characters within the drama are not sung as in a more conventional musical. Instead, we get a tribute to Hyman's accomplishments through a series of concerts comprised of her songs. These concerts, in fact, account for the bulk of the play. And "bulk" is not an ill-chosen term, since Living clocked in at more than three hours on opening night. Although the audience seemed quite enthralled from beginning to end, a bit of trimming wouldn't hurt things. With a production calling for 20 or so songs by one songstress, it starts to make you fear for her vocal chords, especially with all those drawn-out repeating climax codas.

However, there were at least two good reasons for the satisfaction of the viewers. First of all, Paris Robertson, who sings in the starring role, has a dandy set of pipes and tops her renditions with a pleasing dollop of attitude. Secondly, Chris Severin's quartet is a smooth rocking, skilled ensemble.

The backstage drama segments between the concerts are really more vignettes than narrative. The Phyllis we meet is already on the skids. She's on her final slide downward. What's holding her back is one final album that she wants to do before she goes. For the first time, she's written the songs, and it's kind of her suicide note to the world and especially to her fans.

There are two people that Phyllis is close to. One is her loyal longtime manager Glenda (Brittany James), who tries to encourage her and keep her on track. The other is an imaginary being (Stacye Markey), who lives in the mirror. This incarnation (called Phyllis 2 in the playbill) has an aggressive, ambiguous relationship with the real Phyllis, as well she might given Phyllis' self-loathing and self-doubts. The mirror creature is a slim, sexy, hothead. She also serves as a hint to others -- when they chance on Phyllis talking to the mirror -- that the star is slipping into deep, deep waters.

Although there is an implied struggle to save Phyllis in these backstage scenes, we see more of a developing disaster than a dramatic push and pull. There is one scene towards the end of the play, however, in which Glenda confronts her friend and client with what may be the crucial, deciding issue. Phyllis was diagnosed with manic depression ten years ago and she has steadfastly refused to take medication. Glenda, who was there for the diagnosis, sees the current decline as an episode of this devastating syndrome. In effect, she's fighting for her friend's life. She fails.

The bio-drama is not over however. There is a sort of extended epilogue: a street scene showing the effect of her death on her fans, followed by five individual fans' eulogies and one last lament by the deceased -- or perhaps her voice immortalized in vinyl singing "Give Me One Good Reason To Stay."

Most of the drama is carried by the poised performances of the three central players: the doomed star by Robertson, her reflected nemesis by Markey and the faithful manager by James (a role that's played on alternate weekends by Donna King). Among the others giving life to this showbiz schizophrenia are Vernell Payton, Stephon Guidry, Victoria Harrison, Marie Slade, Vera Decuir and Loreta Smith.

There's also a knockout quartet of backup singers and small corps de ballet of nimble young ladies thrown in for good measure.

In brief, Living All Alone is a good thing. Is it too much of good thing? Well, let's put it this way. It sure as hell ain't too little.