Thirty years ago, Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice made a big noise first on London’s West End and then on Broadway and at Steppenwolf Theatre. Written expressly for the unique talents of British actor Jane Horrocks (later famous as Absolutely Fabulous’ looney Bubble), the play tells the almost-Cinderella story of a character known only as “LV”—or “Little Voice,” a fragile girl so damaged by her grim surroundings and alcoholic mother that she can barely speak above a whisper, unless she is belting perfect imitations of mid-century chanteuses: Shirley Bassey, Edith Piaf, Billie Holliday and, above all, Judy Garland.
The play is being staged now by Gift Theatre, directed by Devon de Mayo and Peter G. Andersen.
The power of the original play derived chiefly in the contrast between the very squalid North England setting, and the uncanny perfection of Little Voice’s embodiment of those powerful singers—a crumpled rose amid the very shabby thorns.
So here’s the deal: if you are going to stage The Phantom of the Opera, you need a chandelier. If you’re presenting The Sound of Music, you have to have a troop of singing children. And, God help you, if you’re mounting a production of Starlight Express, you better stock up on roller-skates.
And for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice? You need an actor who can not only convincingly mimic Judy Garland and her contemporaries, but also portray the utter waif-like fragility of the title character when she isn’t singing. I’m sorry to say that this production lacks that essential attribute.
Emjoy Gavino, who plays Little Voice, is excellent when she sings—coming very close to Garland or Holliday; indeed, her stage show in the second act is the highlight of the play. But, when not singing, she seems simply sullen and withdrawn.
The play’s other lead, Alexandra Main as LV’s drunken mother Mari Hoff, similarly fails to deliver a nuanced performance. Main portrays this blowsy, tipsy, utterly selfish monster of a mother at full volume from the very first words of the show to the inevitable wreckage of its conclusion, making it almost impossible for the audience to connect with her character or register the full weight of her final comeuppance.
I do want to single out one member of the company for praise: Julia Rowley plays the mostly monosyllabic neighbor Sadie with a sort of crazed moon-eyed intensity that not only delivers laughs when she’s supposed to, but makes you wonder what she could have done in another role. I wonder if she can sing?
The Gift Theatre’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice runs through October 15 at the Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave. The show lasts two hours with one intermission. Tickets are available at www.thegifttheatre.org or by calling 773-283-7071.
For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.
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