All That He Was plucks the heartstrings | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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All That He Was plucks the heartstrings

A musical about the darkest days of AIDS shows its student-effort roots, but provides a stirring score.

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A little more than two decades ago, composer Cindy O'Connor and lyricist-book writer Larry Todd Cousineau teamed up while still graduate students to write this chamber musical. It won a National Playwright's Award and had a successful Los Angeles run, but even in its updated form, premiering at Pride Films & Plays, it's unmistakably a student effort—which gives it both a naive charm and an unsatisfying superficiality. It's set at the 1992 funeral of the Man, who's just died from AIDS complications at age 26 and acts as unseen host as warring key figures from his life assemble. In the title opening number, each character's big issue is laid out: the Mother is guilty, the Father is ashamed, the Sister is self-righteous, the Brother is adrift. No one thinks the Lover should be there at all.

It's all a bit schematic, and most of the show's 105 minutes feature heart-on-the-sleeve ballads and anthems that delineate rather than dramatize each character's tortured back story. Not only does this make every other number feel like the show's emotional climax, but it leaves everyone stuck in emotional cement—until they unaccountably reconcile their issues in a single closing number.

But the show's youthful vigor can pluck the heartstrings, especially in moments revisiting the darkest days of the epidemic. Director Cousineau's earnest if at times overwrought performers sing the stuffing out of a demanding score. Even the wish-fulfilling finale, perfectly devoid of cynicism, feels like something of a tonic.  v

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