[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]

School Daze by Matthew Murray

  • LittleFish.jpgNo one treats urban angst better than Michael John LaChiusa. Whether it's in the revolving lovers of Hello Again, the rambunctious revelers of The Wild Party, or the past-meets-present-meets-uncertainty of See What I Wanna See, he captures the needs and neuroses we all experience better than any other current major musical theatre writer.

    That's why he was ideal for writing one of the earliest post–September 11 musicals, one that dealt with that tragedy's emotional aftermath as filtered through the eyes and lungs of one woman trying to quit smoking. When that show, based on the writings of Deborah Eisenberg and titled Little Fish, premiered at Second Stage in early 2003, it was a miniature marvel of a hip, New York musical comedy that was as much about all of us as it was its conflicted central figure, Charlotte.

    That production, which starred Jennifer Laura Thompson, went unrecorded. It took the Los Angeles–based Blank Theatre Company, which recorded LaChiusa's First Lady Suite and did a first-rate revival of his Wild Party a few years back, to resurrect the show last year and bring it into the studio for Ghostlight to preserve. But while it's a treat to have this show in a readily listenable format, the presentation doesn't go down as smoothly as it did live at Second Stage.

    Much of this is attributable to the recording's Charlotte, Alice Ripley. She's known for high-belting roles in high-flying shows like Sunset Blvd. and Side Show, but does not scream fragility—she screams everything else, and that's the problem. Charlotte's inability to connect with herself, with others, and with the vibrant city around her has her treading water on a daily basis, both literally (at the YMCA) and figuratively. But Ripley's committed, piercing, and coffee-toned singing is the vocal definition of control, giving lie to all Charlotte's stated fears about inadequacy and inability in an existence rapidly spiraling out of her control.

    Without this aspect of her character, there's no show. Like George Furth and Stephen Sondheim's Company, Little Fish is about how attempts to overcome inertia can be just as paralyzing as remaining rooted in one spot. And like the eternal bachelor Robert in that show, Charlotte needs to learn enough about herself to make a choice to live in a different way. It's the smallest of journeys, but one of the most important, and Ripley never allows it to happen. She sounds good in the most superficial of ways, firmly singing her way through songs about life, artistic, and relationship troubles, but evinces not a hairline fracture of vulnerability to explain how Charlotte got where she is. Other performances, from the likes of Robert Torti as her down-putting ex-boyfriend, Chad Kimball as her workout buddy, and Samantha Shelton as her free-spirited roommate, come closer to the mark, but can't make up for the too-solid center Ripley represents.

    LaChiusa's score is his hardest-driving and his most contemporary sounding, smart and traditional in its exploration of the characters but also resolutely now. It pulses with the energy of the big city as undercut by currents of breathlessness and anxiety, just the right sound for the world in which Charlotte is trying to find herself. Whether ruminative, revelatory, comedic, or even just sentimental, LaChiusa's songs always sound right, and thrill with their surprisingly dark and deep layers of dramatic and musical meaning. (The six-piece band, which includes orchestrator nonpareil Bruce Coughlin—who's also responsible for the show's excellent rock-like charts—on keyboards, is energetically led by David O.) But Ripley's unshakable confidence in a role that requires everything but keeps this recording swimming mostly upstream rather than going with the flow.

    Why are you looking all the way down here?
    For more articles by Matthew Murray, click the links below!

    Previous: Revival Meeting

    Next: Welcome to a Different Party

    Or go to the Archives

[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]