In Jim Cartwright’s “The Rise and Fall of the Little Voice,” the struggling title character escapes from her dysfunctional and chaotic life, working-class life in Yorkshire, England, circa 1992, to a world far over the rainbow, full of French chansons and songbooks. .
Emjoy Gavino, who plays LV, as his family calls him, makes a magnificent voice in these cabaret scenes; Not only does she sing like everyone from Billie Holiday to Gracie Fields to Judy Garland, but she also shows us the liberating powers for her character. Cartwright (who also wrote “Road,” the newly released production from 1990s Chicago major Roadworks) wasn’t writing about the power of art merely as a way to escape the various everyday hells in which some young people find themselves stuck. It’s not just about early age, but also about their capacity for transformation. Gavino shows us every note of this possibility, and it is as moving as it is riveting to watch.
But there is another side to the play “Little Voice”, which I have admired for the last 30 years. The famous and justifiably beloved 1993 Steppenwolf Theater Company production went to Broadway and starred the roaring Rondi Reed as LV’s unloving mother, Mari. But that side is muddy here.
Chicago’s Gift Theater currently operates out of Filament Theatre’s Six Corners home on Milwaukee Avenue; It’s a cool and comfortable space, but much larger than their previous intimate venues. This larger theater adds to the challenges, of course. But the issues here are really about the need to be more willing to go to the more difficult places in life.
This new production from directors Devon de Mayo and Peter G. Andersen is essentially lacking in edge and threat. Alexandra Main, who plays the chaotic, drunken Mari, spending time with her friend Sadi (Julia Rowley) and wallowing in the living room with whoever is available, captures the character’s gothic exuberance, but we don’t feel like LV is at the level we really want. The risk that arises from this local scenario comes mostly from the fact that the adults here are overly well-intentioned, even including sleazy talent agent Ray Say (Ben Veatch).
What further complicates this issue is that LV doesn’t feel Low Voice enough in scenes where other characters constantly and dismissively talk about her blocked voice and her unwillingness or inability to speak her mind or heart. In other words, the show brings down the amplified LV to spectacular effect, thanks to Gavino, but he lacks the motivation to use this music to liberate his natural voice, hitherto hampered by trauma and insecurity.
LV has a friend named Billy (Martel Manning) who (perhaps) takes care of her, and you’re meant to see him as LV’s only helper in a cruel world, if there is one. But it doesn’t really feel that way in this production; sure, you meet a lot of fun characters and a lot of crazy comic book business occurs, but you don’t see or feel the underlying pain that makes LV’s eventual transformation into Laura potentially cathartic. .
For this reason necessary.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “The Rise and Fall of the Little Voice” (2.5 stars)
When: until October 15
Where: Gift Theater at Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Working time: 2 hours
Tickets: $35-$45 or by calling 773-283-7071. thegifttheatre.org