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.