Picture peppy cartoon characters singing the blues and that would pretty much capture the odd incongruity of book and music in the world-premiere musical “Little Egypt.” Add to that a tectonic tonal shift from act one to act two — eccentric innocence morphs into deep psychological damage — as well as a bizarre incoherence within many of its musical numbers, and this work requires a diagnosis of dramatic schizophrenia.
The symptoms here have a straightforward cause. While there’s no credit given anywhere, this work is a direct descendant of Lynn Siefert’s 20-year-old play of the same name; the songs were developed separately. Actor Gregg Henry appeared in the play in the mid-’90s, and then wrote the music (under the name Gregg Lee Henry). Chances are that many of these songs were not even written with the play in mind, since they don’t seem to bear much relevance to the storyline, slight as it is.
Set in 1982 in southern Illinois — the region where the Mississippi, Wabash and Ohio rivers meet is known as Little Egypt — the story centers on a pair of lonely eccentrics who fall in love. French Stewart and Sara Rue, best known for their sitcom roles, portray, respectively, the Vietnam veteran-cum-mall security guard Victor and introverted bookworm Celeste.
Celeste has returned home from college, much to the chagrin of her boozy, lusty mother, Faye (Jenny O’Hara). Unwelcome in her childhood home, Celeste moves in with her sister Bernadette (Misty Cotton).
Meanwhile, another roommate situation develops, as Victor’s longtime pal (or at least hanger-on) — unemployed, would-be philosopher Watson (Henry) — moves in to Victor’s living space, an abandoned garage.
The rest of the story involves coupling up — Watson with Bernadette, Victor with Celeste, Faye with the town’s mayor (John Apicella) — and the inevitable complications and un-couplings that follow.
There is some depth here, although it always feels far more strained and cliched than organic. Victor is a character haunted by his war experiences, desperate for human connection but also scared of it. But, really, he’s just plain quirky, particularly in the hands of the naturally quirky Stewart.
Celeste delves into books, but, of course, it’s really a means to avoid truly experiencing the complexities of life. She’s also insecure, and told frequently that she’s unattractive; reminiscing about their late father, Faye tells Celeste: “Bernadette got his looks. You got his suitcase.” Rue, however, is cute as a button, no matter how big the glasses, scrunchy the lips or loud the lisp.
The disconnect between what we’re supposed to experience and what we actually do only grows in this production, directed by Lisa James. When Siefert tries to get deep and dark — there’s an abortion and an attempted rape in the second act — it all feels even more forced and out of tune.
The music, actually, is tuneful, but it only adds to the disjointed nature of “Little Egypt.” Henry writes wordy, raspy, twangy tunes — sort of a country blues — and some of his songs tilt toward gospel. But they don’t do the one thing they need to do: help establish the world this play takes place in. Not from a realistic perspective — these sounds may be geographically correct for the region — but from a worldview perspective. The reality of this show is offbeat and pixilated, but Henry’s music seems earthy. The dialogue is languorous; Henry’s beats are frequently driving.
While occasionally lovely in their own right, particularly when belted by standout singer Cotton, the songs bear little relation to the other goings-on. Celeste and Victor get consecutive love songs about metaphorical fishing — she sings “Fishing for the Moon,” he sings “Big Ol’ Catfish.” Neither makes much sense for either character or story, except as expressions of generic yearning.