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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
While the critical and box office failure of Marie Christine and The Wild Party was not without foundation, I've remained hopeful that the talented LaChiusa would come up with the right mix of book and music that would be true to his musical voice but with a couple of real stick-to-the-ears show tunes.
The advance information on Little Fish seemed tailored to make hope burst into a big Hurrah. The small cast (8 actors, 7 musicians) promised the intimacy of the near flawless Hello Again. With New Yorkers more eager to connect and find joy in a city turned on its head by 9/11, what could be more appealing than a book about a group of urbanites gathering strength and renewed joy in life through friendship -- especially since these characters are the creations of Deborah Eisenberg, whose edgy slices of New York life have appeared regularly in The New Yorker.
I'd like to report that Little Fish is, like Metamorphoses, another big catch for The Second Stage. However, while the ingenious ribbon pool by Ricardo Hernandez is as much of a coup-de-theater as the Metamorphoses pool, this show is a case of its parts being more than their sum.
There's so much talent on display that you walk out scratching your head wondering how so much that's right could leave you less than completely bowled over. The score is diverse and shapely. The lyrics are full of sharp rhymes, like "here's a short story about a little fish who couldn't swim/she was too neurotic/to be Aquatic" (from "The Pool "). Daniela Graciela's direction and choreography smartly reflect the rhythm of city life and is strongly supported not just by Mr. Henandez's set but by lighting designer Peggy Eisenhauer. The actors play their "little fish" roles with big fish pizzazz.
Little Fish has many of the elements of Company the classic about navigating the urban jungle. As a musical savvy man next to me declared upon taking in the multi-level set: "It even looks like the original Company." (quite a feat since in addition to reflecting that show's look, the set also echoes the Second Stage's steely, modern decor).
The comparison to Company points to the first of the current show's problems. Sondheim relied on a theater man, George Furth, to create the book.
LaChiusa is a dedicated Renaissance man style do-it-yourselfer and has opted to create his own book from a source, the short story, which is a notoriously uneasy traveler from page to stage. His adaptation choices aren't bad. He has zeroed in on two stories, "Days " and "Flotsam " anthologized in Transactions in a Foreign Currency and merged them, giving the nameless ex-nicotine addict in one, a name and a group of pals from the other. The opening number, "Days" is a lively introduction to Charlotte, the ex-smoker now heroine, and the other "little fish." Unfortunately Mr. La Chiusa's own metaphoric use of the fish concept to nail down the predictable conclusion that life should and can be enjoyed provided that we swim and run together -- or in "schools of fish" is a bit heavy-handed.
Most problematic is that even Jennifer Laura Thompson's charm and fine voice can't give Charlotte the necessary piquancy to make you care very deeply about her. Neither do you get the sense that she is a talented writer who, even with her self-esteem built up, could ever fit into the rarefied fiction writer's heaven that The New Yorker is known to be.
The thing is to take the show's "enjoy yourself" theme seriously. Ignore the weaknesses as Charlotte learns to ignore the sadistic put-downs of Robert, her creepy Ohio boyfriend (played with deliciously odious flair by Hugh Panaro) and you'll have a good time watching the dips in that ingenious pool and the running around the Y track translated into frisky ensemble dance routines by Ms. Daniele.
The various New Yorkers whose lives and troubles become entwined with Charlotte's life after she runs away from Robert and quits smoking are all terrific. Marcy Harriell as Kathy, Charlotte's supportive best friend and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as gay friend Marco are especially endearing, each singing solos that may not turn into another "Ladies Who Lunch" but demand to be heard again. Eric Jordan Young is amusing as the muscular guy Charlotte shouldn't date because he's Kathy's boyfriend, but does. For in-your-face brashness, there's Lea DeLaria as Cinder, the roommate from hell, who sports rainbow-colored dreadlocks and strips down to her shorts for a confrontation that rivals Kathy Bates's About Schmidt hot tub scene for chutzpah. Ceilia Keenan Bolger and Ken Marks ably take on double roles -- she as a rather ambiguous Anne Frank dream and real life character; he as a bodega owner from whom she used to buy her cigarettes and as Charlotte's lecherous boss at a giveaway newspaper.
When all is said and done, Little Fish is slick and enjoyable but not extraordinary enough for anyone's musical memory book. What you really learn from Charlotteet al, is that writing a musical about kicking the nicotine habit is even harder than taking that last puff.
LINKS TO OTHER MICHAEL JOHN LA CHIUSA SHOWS REVIEWS
The Wild Party
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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