Adapted from the contemporary tales of Deborah Eisenberg, Michael John LaChiusa’s ambitious tuner “Little Fish” offers a musically compelling but thematically turgid glimpse into the life and times of underachieving Manhattanite Charlotte (Alice Ripley). The stellar combined efforts of helmer Kirsten Sanderson, music jockey David O, hoofer honcho Jane Lanier and a talented eight-member ensemble cannot elevate a severely restrictive premise that’s dependent upon the machinations of a central character whose boyfriend rightfully compares her to a blob and whose roommate assigns her “all the attributes of fungus and mold.”
LaChiusa crams 25 attractively atonal, attention-grabbing musical interludes into 90 minutes as if to distract the audience from the flatline emotional malaise of Ripley’s Charlotte. She actually appears to be sedated as Charlotte passively absorbs the colorful menagerie of characters that flow through her near-comatose existence. She’s eerily reminiscent of Bobby, the perpetual bachelor from Stephen Sondheim’s landmark 1970 tuner “Company,” but at least he had a sex drive.
Vocally impressive Ripley lends musical credence to Charlotte’s introspective musings, brought on by her decision to give up smoking; but Ripley has not found the subtextual means to transcend a character defined by her inability to act or react. This places added emphasis on the swirl of Gotham dwellers who attempt to pump life into our protag. Sanderson, abetted by Lanier’s imaginatively quirky musical staging, skillfully interweaves some much-needed distracters into the thematic throughline.
Dina Morishita and Chad Kimball exude a refreshing sense of purpose as Charlotte’s best friends, Kathy and Marco, respectively. They both embrace the inherent dangers of actually living a life as Morishita’s comely fashionista Kathy faces the possibility of cancer (“Remember Me”) and Marco embarks on am addictive but destructive relationship (“I Ran”).
As boyfriend Robert, the central negative figure in Charlotte’s life, Robert Torti projects an obnoxious veracity as he casually but relentlessly skewers every aspect of her being (“Short Story”). Offering a comical turn as Charlotte’s paranoid roommate Cinder, Samantha Shelton appears to literally erupt in frustration at her roomie’s inertness (“Poor Charlotte”).
Brooke Tansley, German Santiago and Gregory Jbara have their moments in less defined roles. Jbara is particularly memorable as the burnt-out middle-aged writer wannabe Mr. Bunder, who makes a half-hearted effort to hit on Charlotte (“By the Way”).
LaChiusa offers “Little Fish” as a metaphor of the post-9/11 melancholy that engulfed many New Yorkers. His conclusion that Charlotte just may find personal salvation by actually swimming in sync with the humanity around her rather than watching it go by is an intriguing premise that does not offer enough substance for a stagework.