The six "Little by Little" song sequences which give the York Theatre Company's latest musical its title can also be used to describe the show.
It's little in terms of the size of the cast, its one instrument orchestra (piano) and lack of scenic bells and whistles. The style is that of an intimate musical revue but, unlike many examples of that format, Little By Little is not plotless though its story line also falls into the "little" category in that it offers no new twists and turns. Taking two perennial favorite topics, love and friendship, the story explores a long time friendship that threatens to disintegrate when it becomes a love triangle. The people making up the three legs of this friendship stool move through the dramatic arc with songs uninterrupted by patter. They have no names -- just Woman I, Woman II and Man-- which adds to the somewhat generic feel of the material.
Fortunately, the performers portraying the friends are a dynamic trio of entertainers with strong voices, nice comic timing and acting talent honed in larger Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. The two women especially come with strong credentials, Christine Noll as Emma in Jekyll and Hyde and Liz Larsen in such shows as Most Happy Fella and A New Brain (see links). Their charm and enthusiasm give this modest musical enough moments of poignancy and bounce to have you applauding with genuine enthusiasm by the time the wrinkles in the fictional friendship are ironed out.
The mathematics of the relationship ( woman I + woman II; woman I + woman II + man; woman I + man; woman II + man) are worked out through a cycle of thirty songs. We see them first as kids seeking escape from boredom. Next we have the stirring of sexual feelings amusingly dramatized during a movie date number called "Popcorn." As adolescence gives way to adulthood "So It Goes" and "Little by Little VI" focus on the results of Christiane's unhappy entanglement in the Liz-Darrin romance. Don't take lyrics like "Little by little you're faced with the fact that this is your life, there's no second act" too seriously though. There's a "Popcorn II" and am upbeat finale to round out what is essentially intended as a comic and joyous celebration of friendship.
What about the music? Like everything about this show, it's smooth and easy to take, but in a minor key.
As in The Show Goes On, the last small musical at this theater and by this company, Little By Little makes good use of some blocks and rectangular forms which double as closets for putting away and fetching the few bright crayon-colored costume changes. The performers expend a lot of energy bouncing up and down those geometric forms, with each taking turns within the "off-stage" area as defined by Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting. The talents of Brad Ross, the composer, and lyricists Ellen Greenfield and Hal Hackady are still in their first flowering and hardly comparable to the magic of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (the center holding togetherThe Show Goes On.). Having that pair on stage as MC and pianist worked so well that you can't help wondering if a small show like this might not do better without attempting to be a real book musical. These reservations notwithstanding, Little By Little offers an enjoyable, tuneful alternative to the glitzy Broadway spectacle and the chance to hear voices that aren't filtered and distorted through heavy amplification.
Brad Ross's audio CD of Little By Little and his acclaimed previous musical, The Times (written with Emmy award Winner Joe Keenan) was issued a year ago and is available at Amazon.com. A nice keepsake of this production.
Our last York Theatre production The Show Goes On
Jekyll & Hyde with Christiane Noll
New Brain with Liz Larsen
Consumer Tip: In addition to this and other musicals -- (the next one, Exactly Like You,will be slightly bigger in scale with lyrics by Cy Coleman and A.E. Hotchner, with music by the former and a book by the latter) -- York has some terrific free (but reservations required-- 935-5820) events scheduled:1. A series of staged readings of Pulitzer Prize Plays on the subject of the family -- with Tad Mosel's All the Way Home next in line on Sunday February 7th at 7:30 p.m.
2. A developmental reading series for new plays and musicals (the incubator for Little By Little). The next one from the Hartt School of Music promises to be quite special -- a production of Battleship Ptemkin, a musical based on the film by Sergei Eisenstein with a cast of 40 and scheduled for a 1:30 and a 6:30 showing on Saturday January 30th.
|LITTLE BY LITTLE
Music byBrad Ross
Lyrics byEllen Greenfield and Hal Hackady
Book by Ellen Greenfield and Annette Jolles
Directed by Annette Jolles
Music Director: Vincent Trovato
Vocal director: Joel Fram
With: Liz Larsen, Christiane Noll, Darrin Baker
Set design: James Morgan
Costume design: John CarverSullivan
Lighting design: Mary Jo Dondlinger
York Theatre Company,Theatre at St. Peter's Church, Citicorp Center, Lexington Avenue at 54th Street (212/ 935-5820)
Previews1/13-20/99; opens 1/21/99
Seen 1/20 and reviewed 1/22 by Elyse Sommer