In its trip across the Atlantic, British playwright Jim Cartwright’s “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice,” a bravura study of a twisted mother-daughter relationship that debuted at the Royal National Theater in London, has grown funnier and much more poignant under the skillfully modulated direction of Simon Curtis.
The American premiereof Cartwright’s play at Steppenwolf is intended as a Broadway tryout, and all the ingredients seem to be in place to give a straight play that is both serious and entertaining a fighting chance of finding an audience.
The Steppenwolf production’s shining centerpiece is Hynden Walch’s brilliant and quite movingperformance as Little Voice, the terribly shy young girl possessed of a remarkable ability to mimic the singing styles of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and various other famous chanteuses.
Little Voice’s haunting talent is recognized and seized upon by her mother’s opportunistic bum of a boyfriend, Ray Say (George Innes). Say’s greedy efforts to exploit Little Voice’s singing talent precipitate tragic events that lead to a heartwarming spiritual liberation for the emotionally tormented girl.
Throughout the evening Walch’s highly expressive face communicates volumes about her character’s crippled personality. To watch Walch convey Little Voice’s genuine terror when she performs before a nightclub audience for the first time is only one of the show’s many high points.
Director Curtis has wisely opted to tone down a bit the brash vulgarity of Mari Hoff, Little Voice’s intensely libidinous and insensitive mother. What had been an over-the-edge star turn in the original London production becomes a much more human and ultimately more sympathetic take on the mother in Steppenwolf ensemble member Rondi Reed’s fine performance.
Curtis has also drawn superb work from the rest of a talented cast. Ian Barford beautifully underplays the role of phone installer Billy, Little Voice’s bashful suitor and spiritual muse. With only minimal words Karen Vaccaro indelibly etches the character of Mari’s put-upon sidekick, Sadie. With expert timing Alan Wilder mines all the lowbrow humor in Mr. Boo, the owner of the club where Little Voice performs.
Production values nicely support the material. Thomas Lynch has designed an impressively seedy llower-class bungalow, moodily lit by Kevin Rigdon. In the nightclub sequences, Rigdon introduces some nifty special effects. And Allison Reeds’ always-appropriate costumes, particularly the garish designs for Little Voice’s mother, are a delight throughout the evening.