By Patrick O’Brien
All That He Was, now playing at Pride Arts Center, is very keen on emphasizing a universal message: love, gay or otherwise, survives all adversity. A noble and necessary message, given that the musical concerns a funeral for a young man who’s died of AIDS.
Arguably, no art form is better-equipped to discuss AIDS than musical theater. Name a musical theater practitioner of a certain age whose life and work has not been affected by AIDS. The loss of such towering giants and unrealized potential alike is still a grievous injury on musicals, as universal an art form as any.
It’s so keen on universality, in fact, that librettist Larry Todd Cousineau only calls the deceased “The Man.” The other players: “The Mother,” “The Father,” “The Lover,” et cetera. A subtle but significant point: this was a situation too-often played out in those dark years, the 80s, where scores of Men were struck down by AIDS, leaving scores of Mothers, Fathers, Lovers, et cetera, to carry on.
And love and reconciliation is exactly what the Man (Matthew Huston), emceeing from beyond the grave, wants the most from his own funeral, and it won’t be easy to come by with his guilt-ravaged Mother and his Lover; his stony Father (aka, Mother’s Ex-Husband); his Bible-thumping Sister; and his radical lesbian Counselor all sharing a room.
The musical as a whole is an earnest and, indeed, universal endeavor, but it needs more relief from its placid backdrop, more specifics to latch onto. The characters don’t really have many specifics or surprises behind their simple delineations. It takes little effort to deduce, for instance, that the Sister and Counselor will come to proselytizing blows; the Mother and Father will come to some reconciliation; and the Mother and Lover’s icy distance will melt.
Sonically, it’s a very pleasant evening — Cindy O’Connor’s music is appropriately wistful and longing. But, like the story, it sometimes feels too pleasant for a story of, well, a man whose life was cut short.
Occasionally, there’s a break — Cousineau and O’Connor reveal a prickly sense of humor in the vein of William Finn as they whizz through the Man’s dysfunctional upbringing (“in six minutes and thirty-two seconds!”), and air a sardonic uncertainty at the doctors who, in combating AIDS, have little more recourse than “We’ll see what happens.” They also lend enough juice to the part of the Girlfriend, the Man’s teenage sweetheart who still pines for him even after his coming-out. Enough, at least, for Brittney Brown to rise to the occasion, to dig deep into that particular morass of love, loss, and what-could’ve-been. For her part, Sarah Hayes’s Mother can break hearts just sitting in the background, which she does a bit too often, given what we hear of her voice.
This production is a reworking of a version that played to acclaim in the 90s, reconceived and remounted as both a warning and message of assurance to today’s LGBTQ+ youth that, hopefully, such an epidemic never happens to them. Through that context and that context alone, the musical becomes necessary. Without it, and without this cast wringing everything they can out of the material, it’s an earnest piece that’s just kind of there — tear up a bit at the closing number, give everyone a hug and out the door you go.
PRIDE Films and Plays presents “All That He Was” through September 9 at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. Tickets and more information are available here.