The Rise and Fall of Little Voice began its life in London's West End, as a play written by Jim Cartwright to showcase the amazing vocal talents of actress Jane Horrocks. Horrocks -- best known to American audiences as the daffy Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous -- has a knack for uncannily accurate impersonations of such great divas of song as Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Billie Holiday. Eventually the play became a movie (rewritten by Mark Herman) that was lauded more for the performances of Horrocks and Michael Caine, as a sleazy club promoter, than for its script.
And that's the problem. Because, at least as evidenced by the production at the Arvada Center, the script is a dreadful, mawkish, flat-footed animal that actors cannot animate no matter how hard they work.
Little Voice is about a young girl living with her boozy, self-centered mess of a mother, Mari. In self-defense, she retreats to her room, where she surrounds herself with the vinyl records her dead father loved. She listens to them so often and with such absorption that she learns to mimic every breath and intonation of the singers, and eventually can only express her deepest feelings in the personae of these warblers. Her mother hooks up with a small-time concert promoter, bringing him home for an evening of slap-and-tickle; he hears Little Voice singing, and -- in one of the evening's few genuinely affecting moments -- dollar signs light up his eyes. He and Mari decide to drag fragile Little Voice into show business, wil-she nil-she.
The play was originally set in a dreary northern England town. Director Rod A. Lansberry decided to transport it to an unspecified U.S. location -- a wise move that spared his actors from having to fake English accents, always a tricky and distracting proposition.
The first act works well enough, thanks in part to the endless energy of Beth Flynn as Mari and a solid performance by Jamie Milholland as promoter Ray Say. There's also Jaime Lujan doing a gentle, appealing turn as Mari's slow-thinking neighbor, Sadie. The protagonist herself has little to do but cower in her room and scuttle up and down the stairs. Vanessa Lemonides handles L.V.'s first disastrous stage performance well, standing in front of the audience hunched awkwardly, like some kind of odd stick insect, her eyes wide with fear. She launches into a verse, stops, tries again and concludes with a breathy Marilyn Monroe-style "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" before running off stage. You can't help feeling at this point, however -- and this is the fault of the script -- that if you had to choose an amusing companion for the evening, you'd take foulmouthed Mari over this simpering, neurasthenic child in an instant.
There's also a young telephone lineman who falls in love with L.V. just seeing her shuffle and bob around the kitchen, and who has a dream of his own: a fabulous light show.
By the second act, the play's weaknesses are bulging through the seams. The situation is so loaded and melodramatic, the mother so unremittingly monstrous, the words so sentimental and repetitive, that eventually you give up. Then there's the big moment, when Little Voice takes the stage. Done well enough, this could redeem the entire event. Lemonides has a nice voice, and she carries off the songs with élan. There are moments when she sounds uncannily like Garland or Barbra Streisand (though I can't for the life of me figure out what Streisand is doing here). But there's a problem: You're hearing imitations, not true impersonations. The point isn't that Little Voice is a diva manqué and has only to drop her shyness to be a star. It's that she identifies with these ladies' vulnerability, their gutsiness in belting or whispering out their pain; that her own grief finds expression in their voices and mannerisms; she becomes them. But vulnerability isn't part of Lemonides's act. For the most part, her singing lacks the warmth of, say, a Garland or Piaf. Her Marilyn Monroe is poised and cutesy and bears no relationship to the woman whose scarred life pushed her to the edge of madness.
There are some solid elements to the Arvada Center production. The set is convincingly messy and worn; Mari's costumes are an event in themselves. It's unclear, however, why the actors need to wear mikes in a venue this small: Sometimes when Chris Reid is doing his turn as the lovestruck young lineman, his amplified breathing is the main event. I can't tell how much of the evening's other problems are attributable to the script and how much to the direction. It's hard to see how an actor could do anything with Ray's long, weepy, coming-apart monologue on the empty stage, or how an actress could inject variation into Mari's incessant lament just before the end. The rousing, climactic finale -- apparently intended to bring the audience to its feet (and succeeding on the night I attended) -- seemed not only vulgar, but a repudiation of everything the play purported to stand for.
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