Three new half-hour musicals, featuring such Broadway talents as Victoria Clark, Barbara Walsh and Michael John LaChiusa, for a mere 20 bucks? That would sound like quite a bargain, and it turns out that the program — under the moniker “Inner Voices: Solo Musicals” — offers more than enough to warrant a visit to the Zipper Theater, even in Clark’s performance alone.
In “Tres Ninas,” a Southern Californian woman — in three distinct episodes, taking place over the course of 25 years — tells how she took notice of, and involved herself in, the life of three illegal immigrants. Piece is jointly credited to Ellen Fitzhugh and prolific composer LaChiusa. While the latter is well known here, Fitzhugh’s two high-profile failures — Hal Prince’s 1985 “Grind” and the 1993 stage adaptation of “Paper Moon” — have limited her subsequent opportunities. One assumes the pair collaborated on the lyrics; in any event, this is LaChiusa’s most directly involving work in years.
Whether a full-length expansion is in the cards is hard to say, but it would be a shame to relegate “Tres Ninas” to the pile of unperformable musicals simply because of its brevity. And Clark, lounging on a worn couch wearing a slip and slippers, gives a rich, incredibly affecting performance as the same character relating what happened to her as a child of 11, a young divorcee of 26 and a worn-out bartender 10 years later.
The final piece, “A Thousand Words Come to Mind,” is interesting but perhaps the least developed of the three (although it might simply fall victim to audience restlessness after 75 intermissionless minutes in the cramped Zipper seating).
Walsh, from “Falsettos” and the recent “Company” revival, plays a woman watching over her mother’s deathbed in the cancer ward. Philip Roth and his novel “The Human Stain” play a part in the narrative, leading one to wonder whether the tale is based on fact (and whether familiarity with the novel would enhance enjoyment of the musical). Walsh gives an exceptional performance, including an eerie section in which she seems to inhabit Roth. Book is by Michele Lowe, music by Scott Davenport Richards (son of late director Lloyd Richards).
More successful is the middle offering, “Alice Unwrapped,” by Laura Harrington and Jenny Giering (authors of last fall’s “Crossing Brooklyn” from the Transport Group).
This starts out as one of those not-very-promising pieces about a mixed-up school kid who dresses in weird, camouflage clothing and alienates everyone around her. As the musical progresses, though, the character and her real-world problems become deeper and more involving, especially in interchanges with her 8-year-old sister. The surprise here is the performance by 16-year-old Jennifer Damiano (seen recently as the daughter in “Next to Normal”). Don’t let her age fool you; this high school junior holds her own with veterans Clark and Walsh.
The three slices are simply but effectively staged by individual directors, sharing the space with a few pieces of furniture but different pianists. (LaChiusa also uses a guitarist to maximum effect, while “A Thousand Words” adds a bass.)
Paulette Haupt, artistic director of a nonprofit group called Premieres, has assembled the program, which makes for an invigorating evening of new mini-musicals from talented writers and performers.