Monday, November 12, 2007
Bobofag goes to Little Fish
I made my way over to the Blank Theatre Company last week to catch the always wonderful Alice Ripley heading a cast of Broadway notables in a revival of Michael John LaChiusa's little known musical "Little Fish." I missed the show in it's short run at the Second Stage theatre in New York, so I was more than happy to have been able to have caught it here, and with such a talented cast. Sadly, despite the best efforts of the performers, the show that surrounds them is a bit of a shambles. LaChiusa has always been a mixed bag for me but his "Wild Party" was, by any measure, one of the greatest new musicals of the last 20 years. After watching that show, I am always willing to sample anything in his oeuvre. Always ambitious, irrepressibly erratic; Michael John LaChiusa fashioned the book, music and lyrics to "Little Fish" himself and the lack of collaborating influence is all too apparent. 'Little Fish" has been compared to Sondheim's landmark 1970 classic "Company" as both shows deal with a contemporary (for their time) New York that while buzzing and over-stimulating allows (causes?) a central character (Charlotte here, Bobby there) to suffer an urban variety of existential isolation and personal malaise. Both shows follow the long path to self-actualization and emotional release. But where "Company" was tightly, if creatively, constructed, "Little Fish" is as indecisive in tone as it's central character. The songs in "Company" brilliantly counterpointed the scenes, commenting on the action and characters with witty, arched lyrics that bristled with irony and venom. "Little Fish" has a score that, while more integrated in the action, more often than not disappoints. Emotional melodies are brushed upon but never realized and the songs blend in and out of one another. No doubt this is Mr. LaChiusa's intended effect, but, when the music and lyrics themselves are so uninspiring, such fluid musicality makes for auditory monotony. The score as a whole is mostly forgettable. Even Ripley's cathartic eleven o'clock number, a song where she finally breaks through the passivity she has long endured, leaves me cold. Intimations of "Being Alive" are none-too-subtle, but not only is the song itself a far less moving melody, as a dramatic denouement it feels far less earned. Though written in the present day, there is very little contemporary about the world these characters inhabit, save the central emotional catalyst of Charlotte quitting smoking (a new trend in New York to be sure!) Indeed, making "Little Fish" a period piece would be an easy task given that there isn't a cellphone, computer, ipod or blackberry in sight. This is New York in the 21st century?
Obviously The Blank is an amazingly ambitious company; producing challenging and exciting musicals with top-notch casts in a theatre space that would make most high school students balk. Though a charming small house, producing musicals in such a tiny forum is a serious challenge to even the most gifted director. Sadly with "Little Fish" the director, Kirsten Sanderson, seems a bit out to sea. Designed as the inside of the YMCA pool (an important plot point in the show), the set nonetheless over-stresses a metaphor best left discerned by the viewer without the aid of such visual cues; especially when they are as visually static as this. Scenery inspired by the city that gives the story it's grounding in reality would have been more fitting. Sanderson also fails to emphasize the thematic through-lines available to her; the relationship between Charlotte and her two best friends should be put front and center from the moment the curtain rises. Only at the end of the show did I realize how important these relationships were to the musicals over-arching raison d'aitre. As staged and acted here, and given her total passivity and rather pathetic demeanor (not too mention a frumpy, unflattering costume) it's hard to imagine why Charlotte is friends with either of these two sharply dressed, supercilious, bourgeois clowns; one, a gorgeous Upper East Side type with a "Sex and the City" aura and the other, an affected young gay art critic with a habit for disastrous and abusive love affairs. Broadway's Chad Kimball ("Lennon," "Into the Woods") sings the latter role beautifully but remains a too cold and aloof presence; one suspects he might just be using the weak willed Charlotte for his own narcissistic psychological satisfaction. Seeing that he sings Charlotte the titular number (a metaphor that, by the way, never quite takes off), a lovely ballad about friendship sung after a emotional confrontation between the two, this is probably not the effect LaChiusa had in mind for the character. No doubt in the original production the helplessly likable Jesse Tyler Ferguson tempered the characters hard-edge; here, depsite his sonorous voice and committment to his characterization, one never quite warms to Mr.Kimball; though one has to give him credit for trying. As for Alice Ripley, an actress best in (though underused for) more broadly comic roles (like her delicious Janet in "The Rocky Horror Show") the character always remains one step away from her grasp. Charlotte remains a cipher, albeit a beautifully sung one. Though Charlotte is ostensibly a writer for the New Yorker, she hardly seems or behaves like any sort of success. Vocally there is little to complain about. Sounding and looking somewhat like a young Betty Buckley, Ripley's voice has never sounded more unique, something I hadn't realized about this singer before. (Indeed news that this production of Little Fish is to be recorded must please LaChiusa fans everywhere; a better recording cast would be hard to put together.) Though she dominates every scene, sounds terrific and almost never leaves the stage, Ripley's natural charisma is nonetheless held at bay by the writing of this non-character. Only Broadway stalwart Gregory Jbara, playing a drunken Lothario, fully realizes his character; in a hilarious highlight, Charlotte flashes back to an unfortunate night when her boss at a neighborhood newspaper made uproariously obvious sexual advances over a far more than two Maritni lunch. The scene is the the shows most broadly comic but, in Jbara's honest performance, a real vulnerability and sadness is equally present amongst the drunken shenanigans. It's also a moment in which LaChiusa's intergration of book, music and score works to full effect.
Ultimately why LaChiusa chose to write "Little Fish" is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he wanted to pen a post-9/11 homage to the city he calls home, but if so, his New York is shockingly unrecognizable. Perhaps after writing a show full of pastiche like "The Wild Party" he wanted to try his hat at a contemporary mileu (reversing Sondheim's trajectory of "Company" and "Follies"). Perhaps he was commissioned by Second Stage. The only question of importance is whether it not the show plays like it needed to be written and on that account the answer is somewhat more definitive. "Little Fish" is a frustrating show that, while moment-to-moment provides satisfying entertainment, in the end, adds up to little. Only time will tell if the author has another "Wild Party" in him or more "Little Fishes." For the sake of the future of musical theatre, Mr. Lachiusa being one of it's most exciting trailblazers, let's hope for more of the former.