FIND­ING ‘HER’ VOICE

Mu­si­cal the­ater just one facet of ver­sa­tile singer Bethany Thomas

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY MARY HOULI­HAN Mary Houli­han is a Chicago free­lance writer.

Over the past two decades, singer-ac­tor Bethany Thomas has built a rep­u­ta­tion as a pow­er­house per­former in an im­pres­sive ar­ray of lo­cal stage mu­si­cals in­clud­ing “Into the Woods,” “The Color Pur­ple,” “Ain’t Mis­be­havin’,” “Rag­time” and “Porgy and Bess.”

But while this ca­reer path has been the Jeff Award win­ner’s bread and but­ter, it isn’t her only love. She is a shapeshift­er who can tackle just about any genre — rock, alt-coun­try, punk, soul — and, in re­cent years add to that, song­writer.

“I feel like my cir­cles kind of over­lap so much be­tween the­ater and rock mu­sic that I don’t re­al­ize that a lot of peo­ple who go to live the­ater aren’t go­ing to some punk show af­ter­ward,” Thomas says, laugh­ing.

To rem­edy that sit­u­a­tion, Thomas has been branch­ing out into projects that have been get­ting broader no­tice. In 2017, she re­leased “First,” an EP of orig­i­nal mu­sic. That same year she was a mem­ber, along with John Szy­man­ski and Tawny New­some, of Jon Lang­ford’s well-re­ceived alt-coun­try/soul project Four Lost Souls, which in­cluded a record­ing ses­sion in Mus­cle Shoals, Alabama, at The Nut­tHouse Stu­dio, fol­lowed by a tour.

Now, Thomas’ new self-re­leased al­bum, “BT/She/Her” (due Aug. 28), recorded at Chicago’s Sound Vault Stu­dios, of­fers an even broader por­trait of a singer­song­writer who has no in­ten­tion of stick­ing to one lane. It re­sults in a win­ning rein­tro­duc­tion to an artist whose tal­ent seems bound­less.

The songs — from scorch­ing rock num­bers to thought­ful fo­cused bal­lads — are per­sonal and de­fi­ant and filled with sur­pris­ing ar­range­ments she co-pro­duced with long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Packy Lund­holm.

Thomas, 38, says she got to a point in her ca­reer where she “wasn’t con­nect­ing mu­si­cally with the songs she was per­form­ing,” which spurred her on to “start writ­ing the stuff I wanted to sing, to write about the things I wanted to talk about and not tell some­body else’s story . ...

“As my the­ater ca­reer started mov­ing in bet­ter ways, I felt I was get­ting more op­por­tu­ni­ties but still I could see where I was con­tin­u­ously held back at cer­tain points. That feel­ing went into a lot of these songs; me look­ing at my own anx­i­eties and talk­ing about them in ways where I’m not nec­es­sar­ily apol­o­giz­ing.”

Thomas ad­mits she is step­ping a bit out of her com­fort zone in one as­pect — the stu­dio record­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Singing into a mi­cro­phone in a ‘dead’ room is so dif­fer­ent from singing on stage,” she says. “You get into the booth and you don’t even rec­og­nize the sound you’re mak­ing. It’s a dif­fer­ent way of singing and I’m learn­ing and get­ting bet­ter at it. It’s al­most like learn­ing a whole new skill, a whole new art.”

Grow­ing up in Kenosha, Wis­con­sin,

Thomas (who now makes her home in Chicago’s Hum­boldt Park neigh­bor­hood) knew from an early age that she loved singing. In ad­di­tion to per­form­ing in school shows, she also took part in the Kenosha Youth Per­form­ing Arts Com­pany, an in­ten­sive mu­si­cal the­ater pro­gram.

But the events of the past few days in the wake of the Ja­cob Blake shoot­ing have weighed heav­ily on Thomas’ mind.

“It was an ex­tremely nur­tur­ing com­mu­nity for me grow­ing up. And while I am pro­foundly sad­dened by the de­struc­tion tak­ing place, I am dev­as­tated for Ja­cob Blake’s fam­ily — and be­yond frus­trated (though no longer sur­prised) with the myr­iad wellinten­tioned voices who still feel com­pelled to con­demn the loss of prop­erty over the tak­ing of Black bod­ies by the po­lice,” Thomas said.

“Af­ter the sum­mer our coun­try has had, how can you still not have any per­spec­tive? Black Lives Mat­ter more than build­ings, more than busi­nesses — and these types of up­ris­ings aren’t go­ing to stop un­til Black and Brown peo­ple can get any glim­mer of a sign we are be­ing heard and be­lieved and fi­nally pro­tected as equal hu­man be­ings.”

Thomas has per­formed in mu­si­cals and plays at the­aters in­clud­ing Court, Writ­ers, Mar­riott, Drury Lane and Mil­wau­kee Reper­tory, where she had just com­pleted a run in “Hed­wig and the An­gry Inch,” when the COVID-19 pan­demic shut ev­ery­thing down and caused un­prece­dented up­heaval in the the­ater world.

Up­com­ing per­for­mances in Joanna Mur­ray-Smith’s “Songs for No­bod­ies” and Michael Hollinger’s hol­i­day show, “Mr. Dick­ens’ Hat” at North­light Theatre were can­celed. Sud­denly, she had a lot of time on her hands.

With noth­ing on the hori­zon, Thomas left town for Cal­i­for­nia, where for three weeks she worked with her friend Tawny New­some on a batch of new songs. Set­ting up shop in New­some’s garage stu­dio in the desert out­side of Los An­ge­les, the col­lab­o­ra­tors wrote and recorded a new al­bum, “Ma­te­rial Flats,” due Oct. 2.

Many of the songs were in­spired by the COVID quar­an­tine and other events of the past few months.

“It’s been a time of des­per­a­tion and race ri­ots and cur­fews,” Thomas says. “Mak­ing new mu­sic has been my job for the past few months. I’ve spent a lot of time try­ing to sort out my feel­ings about the world to­day and what I want to say in my mu­sic.”

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