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Published: 2021-06-29 01:28:21
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As a teacher of singing for musically untrained theatre majors at Columbia College in Chicago, I’ve observed that the most daunting obstacle novice singers face isn’t lack of talent or technique. It’s lack of confidence–a paralyzing fear of failure that stems from more serious problems than musical inexperience. One method to combat this fear is what my fellow teachers and I call the “celebrity game”–a role-playing exercise in which students sing their chosen songs in the persona of a famous performer; this experience of stepping outside themselves allows students to approach singing with less anxiety and self-consciousness and move toward finding their own natural voices.
The premise of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice sounds a bit like one of my classes. The play (a critical and popular success in its 1992 world premiere at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain) tells of a mother whose relentless verbal abuse and overhearing presence have left her teenaged daughter LV (“Little Voice”) a painfully shy neurotic who’s unable to speak above a whisper–except when, holed up in her tidy bedroom, she plays and sings along with the records bequeathed to her by her late father Frank.
Little Voice, which recently concluded a two-month run in its American premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, showcases Cartwright’s vivid writing, which came to the attention of American audiences in his breakthrough environmental-theatre piece Road, a grittily poetic portrait of an impoverished English town which received its U.S. premiere at Chicago’s Remains Theatre in 1987.
Deeply buried talent
As directed by Cartwright’s fellow Briton Simon Curtis (who staged the premiere of Road at London’s Royal Court) and well-realized by a trio of Chicago designers–Thomas Lynch (sets), Allison Reeds (costumes) and Kevin Rigdon (lights)–Steppenwolf’s mounting of the play adopts a realistic yet fabulist tone. But its themes of familial conflict, the psychology of singing and the struggle of a young person to find her own identity are developed in superficial, sentimental terms.
The albums LV plays–by Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and other divas of classic pop–provide an outlet for her deeply buried talent. Belting along with the records since childhood, LV (played by Hynden Walch as a pale blond urchin out of a Dickens novel) develops the ability to mimic the original singers–and, ominously, to incorporate the exciting but unstable emotional states they embodied into her own.
The records infuriate her mother Mari (Rondi Reed), whose own tastes run toward Elvis and Tom Jones. Hearing LV sing along with Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” or Bassey’s “Goldfinger” reminds Mari of her dead husband, and the frustration she felt as a wife whose child, she believes, stole his love from her.
Mari’s none too pleased when her new boyfriend, a sleazy talent agent named Ray Say (played by George Innes, the one authentic Briton in the otherwise all-Chicago cast, as an aging hipster in ponytail and gold chains), is so entranced by LV’s vocal talents that he wants to make the kid a star.
Of course, Ray’s plans are doomed by LV’s obvious ill-suitedness to public performance: It’s only a matter of when, not whether, her voice will overtake her (in a crackup scene that makes Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? look positively understated). But never fear: Like Vicki Lester in A Star Is Born (the Garland movie that LV absorbs from late-night telly), LV will be redeemed by true love–in this case a gentle romance with Billy (Ian Barford), a sweet, tongue-tied telephone installer who comes to court LV in her upstairs bedroom, arriving on a hydraulically elevated “cherry picker.” This Romeo brings his own balcony.
Blend of comedy and pathos
Little Voice is a calculating blend of broad, ribald comedy and pathos, with many scenes that shimmer with comic energy and bravura characterization. The roles of Mari and LV can be dynamic showcases for the right actors–in London, the parts were played by Alison Steadman and Jane Horrocks, known to film audiences for their roles as mother and daughter in Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet–but neither Reed nor Walch imbued their characters with the complex inner life needed to lift them beyond the cliched characterizations of brassy broad and winsome waif.
Still, LV’s breakthrough–when “the girl with the greats queuing up in her gullet” takes the stage of a tacky nightclub (outfitted with blinders to compensate for her agoraphobia) to belt out a grotesque medley of impersonations (Garland at Carnegie Hall, Bassey in Vegas, Marilyn Monroe panting “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy)–is a surefire crowd-pleaser. So is her second-act breakdown, in which she’s taken over by the women she impersonates, which in Chicago resembled Linda Blair’s possession in The Exorcist as much as anything else.
Debt to fairy-tale literature
But then, much of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice resembles something else. Like its heroine, it’s a patchwork of influences ranging from A Taste of Honey to fairy-tale literature. There’s plenty of “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel” in the story of a girl abused and imprisoned by her mother until she’s rescued by a charming prince–in this case Billy, who bears LV to safety though her bedroom window when her house burns down. Fairy tales can be a valid inspiration for theatre, but The Rise and Fall of Little Voice only toys with this rich mythic dimension; it seems to use make-believe wish fulfillment to avoid dealing seriously with the psychological concerns it has raised.
Albert Williams is chief theatre critic for the Chicago Reader, and an artist-in-residence at the Columbia College Theater/Music Center.

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