It took 10 producers and three associate producers to bring Jim Cartwright's "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" to Broadway. I wish I had the space to list them all because we owe them a twofold debt of gratitude.
First, they have brought us a genuinely bad play. In this era of the solidly mediocre, you have to be grateful when something this ghastly comes along.
Second, in view of how many remarkable things have come to us this spring from London, we are in danger of succumbing to severe Anglophilia. "Little Voice" should prevent that.
Set in the North of England, "Little Voice" is about a pathologically shy girl who has a gift for impersonating great singers (Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, etc.).
Her trampy mother, Mari, brings home a sleazy date, named Ray Say, who hears Little Voice singing in her room. He decides he can build a career for her. Her stage fright makes short shrift of his plans and her mother's financial fantasies.
Except for a doltish telephone repairman, who has a crush on Little Voice, and Sadie, a pathetically overweight woman who is Mari's closest friend, all the characters, including Little Voice, are unsympathetic.
Early in the play, there is a moment where Mari, spraying her hair and taking a swig of gin before her date arrives, jokes: "Lacquer, liquor." I thought we were veering towards John Waters farce. Ultimately, though, the play has no clear style. It begins as crude comedy, tries for seriousness, then erupts in grotesqueness as, with echoes of "Carrie," Mari's house goes up in flames. At the end, we get a light show as Little Voice finds herself.
The play, a hit in London, comes to us by way of Chicago's Steppenwolf Company, pioneers in Scratch 'n' Sniff Theater. Here the acting is so raunchy it makes Cartwright's slight script seem pointless. The best performance, that of Ray, is by George Innes, an English actor who, according to his bio, lives in L.A. with his daughters Gable and Curzon. Hynden Walch is a decent mimic, though she sings off-pitch and cannot make Little Voice appealing.
The play has one great line: Mari tells Sadie, "Your armpits have that smell of cat food again...At least I'll be able to find you in the dark."
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
English playwright Jim Cartwright has inherited Arnold Wesker's position as a poet of the British working class. Just as Wesker's "Roots" once suggested the emergence of a young woman, a similar butterfly process can be seen in Cartwright's "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" at the Neil Simon Theater.
"Little Voice" originated, like the recent Broadway production of J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls," with Britain's National Theater. Unlike the Priestley, it has been given an entirely new staging. A pity.
The play itself is effective but flawed - in London that effectiveness was shined to a rare gloss by Sam Mendes' direction, and more especially the acting, with Jane Horrocks glittering quietly in the title role, and Pete Postlethwaite wolfishly impressive as an unscrupulous manager.
The present production comes from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, and although staged by an experienced Cartwright hand, Simon Curtis, the flaws are left to speak for themselves.
The play is a parable about finding one's own voice and listening to others, a parable wrapped up around a story of cheap show biz in North of England workingmen's clubs.
The daughter, Little Voice, or L. V. (Hynden Walch), is in silent revolt from her widowed mother - sitting up in her bedroom playing the vast collection of pop LPs left by her shy, dead father.
The mother, Mari (Rondi Reed), boozes, entertains gentlemen callers and bullies her one friend, fat and compliant Sadie (Karen Vaccaro). Abusive and alcoholic, Mari feels, rather like Rose in "Gypsy," that life has passed her by.
One night Mari brings home the loud and loutish Ray Say (George Innes). The electricity in the house shorts out. L. V.'s record player goes dead. But suddenly, sure and true, the voice of Judy Garland floats downstairs. A magic moement.
L. V. can imitate anyone - Barbra Streisand, Gracie Fields, Marilyn Monroe. Ray thinks he has hit pay dirt. One snag - persuading L. V. to overcome her virtually pathological stage fright. L. V. does not want to perform.
"No one ever listens to anybody," she observes. "I do," says Billy (Ian Barford), a telephone technician, and a wiz with laser lights, L. V.'s suitor and eventually her savior.
This is the season for special effects (soon we must have a Tony Award for them - perhaps replacing the one for Best Play!) and they are here abundant. The performances are pretty good too.
Walch makes a nicely waif-like Little Voice - her looks would sell matches in a snow storm - but never quite convinces one, as did the National Theater's Horrocks, that she can so totally become the singers she is imitating that stardom inevitably awaits.
Apart from a sleazily aggressive Innes, the rest, including John Christopher Jones as an epicene emcee, are all either over or under the top, for which Curtis must bear part of the blame.
The play does need a very special sleight of hand for its seriousness and magic to emerge. This production doesn't have it, and one is left with something that falls far short of possibilities that are themselves not exactly immense.
The young waif they call Little Voice in the boisterous British drama "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" is one of life's odder victims. Terminally shy, her ghostly white face as close to a blank page as a face can get, she speaks in barely audible birdlike peeps.
Alone in her bedroom, however, with the door closed and the abusive world far from sight, she does mesmerizing imitations of all the pop female vocalists her dead father once worshiped. The tiny, apologetic voice suddenly comes alive with the blasting power of Shirley Bassey, takes on the dramatic tremolo of Judy Garland or vibrates with the plaintive nasality of Edith Piaf defiantly proclaiming that, "non," she regrets "rien de rien." Her imitations are so accurate that, hearing them, people can't believe their ears.
You will not have this problem, unfortunately, at the Neil Simon Theater, where Little Voice is played by Hynden Walch. While the actress does credible enough imitations, it will not once occur to you that the character just might be possessed or that the celebrated voices she assumes are as much an escape from the world's brutality as glass figurines are for Laura Wingfield. At her best, Ms. Walch has the sort of proficiency that wins talent contests; she does not possess the poetic uniqueness that illuminates tortured dramas from within.
Two years ago, the eerie magic cast by the British actress Jane Horrocks in the role was largely responsible for getting this scruffy play by Jim Cartwright talked about in London. Without a haunting Little Voice, however, it proves just another account of a miserable working-class family, short on hope and shorter on cash. Mounted by the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theater Company, the production that opened last night accentuates everything that is vociferous and crude about the work. It also represents a curious throwback to the early days of Steppenwolf, when the brawling, furniture-breaking, over-the-top vigor of its company members had people talking for a while of a Chicago school of acting.
Fine subtleties are not lacking here so much as shading of any kind. Under the damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead direction of the Englishman Simon Curtis, "Little Voice" has all the grotesqueness, although little of the humor, of a "Far Side" cartoon. When Mari Hoff, Little Voice's slatternly mother (Rondi Reed), isn't falling-down drunk, she's desperately hurling herself at anything in pants (or anything that pants). Next to her, the egotistical mother in Shelagh Delaney's "Taste of Honey," a play "Little Voice" sometimes brings to mind, is the very model of maternal solicitude. Spilling out of cheap blouses and tottering about on stiletto heels, Ms. Reed yanks out every stop within the first 10 minutes and then repeats herself to rapidly diminishing effect for the rest of the evening.
No sooner has Ray Say (George Innes), a two-bit agent with gold chains around his neck and a ponytail, heard Little Voice singing than he has instant dreams of the fortune he'll make as her personal manager. No sooner has Mari Hoff laid eyes on Ray Say than she has instant dreams of the husband he'll make. Little Voice would prefer to stay in her room, where she lovingly tends to her father's collection of LP's. But it's not too long before she's being led, blindfolded and dressed in a clinging white evening gown, into the spotlight of the local dive to do her voices for the crowd. There could be something poignant in this or something unbearably painful, something nightmarish even. But there isn't.
Giving the play a big Broadway production has only magnified its most salient feature, a kind of dimwitted grossness that also has a tendency to surface, late in the night, at frat-house parties. Encouraged to make spectacles of themselves, the cast members do.
As Lou Boo, club owner and M.C., John Christopher Jones sports a cheesy wig, grins inanely into a stand-up mike and tells the audience, "Don't shout my name too loud or I'll think you don't like me." Thereupon, he dissolves into yuks. Ian Barford portrays an introverted worker from the phone company who is supposed to be Little Voice's soul mate and eventual savior. But he mostly seems a colossal sad sack, and never more so than when he rides to her rescue on a cherry picker. Karen Vaccaro, however, may have the most ignominious assignment. She plays Sadie May, the obese next-door neighbor who sits around stuffing moldy cornflakes in her mouth and suffering the crass insults of Mari Hoff, supposedly her best friend, with a look of wan martyrdom. In the second act, someone claps her on the back, and she throws up.
The two-story dwelling that the set designer, Thomas Lynch, has constructed for Little Voice and her mother could be the centerfold in House Ugly. It is furnished in Early Thrift Shop. Much of the wiring is worn and faulty, apparently, because the fuses are always blowing. Time and again, there is a sharp sizzling noise, followed by a rain of sparks, and the stage is plunged into pitch darkness. As running gags go, this one is fairly lame. But it beats having to come up with curtain lines, I guess.
The final entry in the British Invasion of Broadway, 1994 edition, "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" comes with an American sub-pedigree. The new production of Jim Cartwright's play, first staged two years ago by the Royal National Theater, marks the Steppenwolf Theater Company's ninth transfer from Chicago to New York. A valiant, noisy, physical production in the patented Steppenwolf style, it nevertheless fails to make a case for what ultimately comes off as a pointless exercise. Moreover, it lacks a star-quality lead performance essential in making the show a must-see.
Little Voice (Hynden Walch) is the unsurprisingly reclusive daughter of loud-mouthed, hard-drinking Mari Hoff (Rondi Reed), a loser, a user and a tramp who's latched onto local promoter Ray Say (George Innes), the kind of worm for whom the term "lounge lizard" is a compliment. Hearing Little Voice mimic Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf and the like, Ray pounces, smelling a meal ticket. Little Voice's club debut is a halting disaster, but soon Mari and Ray have the miserable girl performing her impersonations before appreciative crowds until a sympathetic telephone man appearsto save her from self-destruction.
The play is set in working-class northern England, and Cartwright has a fine ear for the rough and raunchy language that occasionally approaches blank verse. But if there's a plot in "Little Voice," you'd be hard-pressed to figure out what it is. Not much of a rise, certainly, and not much of a fall, for that matter.
But there is atmosphere to spare, from Thomas Lynch's shabby bilevel apartment to Kevin Rigdon's perfect, flat lighting and Allison Reeds' costumes -- aptly hideous for Mari and Ray, aptly nondescript for the rest. Director Simon Curtis makes the most of all this, staging the play at a ferocious pace and bringing it off as a kind of bad acid-trip "Gypsy." He's blessed with several marvelous in-your-face performances, key among them the Mari and George of Reed and Innes, who go together like pig and swill.
There are also pungent contributions from John Christopher Jones as a smarmy club owner, Karen Vaccaro as Mari's enormous confidante and Ian Barford as the moony phone installer.
That leaves Walch. She does a fine job of conveying Little Voice's loneliness , isolation and terror. Having a star in the role would be self-defeating, but Walch's impersonations are strictly amateur, relying on italicizing gestures because she doesn't have the technique to put across such a range of singers; where's Lipsynka when you need him? (This Little Voice does Little Sparrow -- Piaf -- best; Billie Holiday suffers most.)
A short-circuiting fuse box that stops the action is a running gag throughout. It's a silly annoyance made even sillier by the fact that there's really no action to stop.