The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

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.

With:
Mari Hoff ... Rondi Reed Little Voice ... Hynden Walch Phone Man/ Mr. Boo ... John Christopher Jones Billy ... Ian Barford Sadie ... Karen Vaccaro Ray Say ... George Innes

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.

OFF BROADWAY

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

(Neil Simon Theater, New York; 1,386 seats; $ 50 top)

Production: A James M. & Charlene Nederlander, Peggy Hill Rosenkranz, Dennis Grimaldi, Pace Theatrical Group, Kevin McCollum, Jon Platt, James L. Nederlander, Leonard Soloway and Michael Codron presentation, in association with Matt Garfield, Leavitt/Fox Theatricals/Mages and Nick Scandalios, of the Steppenwolf Theater Company production of a play in two acts by Jim Cartwright. Directed by Simon Curtis.

Creative: Set, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Allison Reeds; lighting, Kevin Rigdon; sound, Rob Milburn; action sequences, B.H. Barry; music director, June Shellene; press, Shirley Herz; technical supervisor, Arthur Siccardi; production stage manager, Malcolm Ewen. Opened May 1, 1994, at the Neil Simon Theater. Reviewed April 28; 1,386 seats; $ 50 top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: Mari Hoff ... Rondi Reed Little Voice ... Hynden Walch Phone Man/ Mr. Boo ... John Christopher Jones Billy ... Ian Barford Sadie ... Karen Vaccaro Ray Say ... George Innes

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