Michael John LaChiusa intimately understands New Yorkers. What drives them, what scares them, what they need, and what they don't all seem like the simplest of subjects for of this extremely talented composer-lyricist-librettist. In conceiving and creating Little Fish, now at the Second Stage Theatre, he has devised a musical as melodic, dissonant, and inspiring as the city itself.
The city provides the impetus for a uniquely-crafted score suggesting the New York of 2003 as succinctly as Stephen Sondheim's Company did the New York of the early 1970s. LaChiusa's music buzzes with the traffic, slows to a halt in the chill winter air, and demonstrates the breathless anticipation of a new possibility around every corner. His music is one moment ultra-modern presentational, the next detached and introspective, and then heartbreaking.
Though suggested by the stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Little Fish has unmistakably been fashioned through LaChiusa's own theatrical sensibility, similar to his last New York offering, 2000's The Wild Party. The characters of Little Fish, like the characters of that musical, are perceived (distorted?) through the eyes of a central woman, in this case Charlotte (Jennifer Laura Thompson), a successful writer who gives up smoking only to discover she doesn't know herself at all.
In turning to her friends, Charlotte gets to know herself better: The beautiful Kathy (Marcy Harriell) convinces Charlotte to swim her troubles away; energetic and perceptive Marco (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) wants her to run; the memories of her ex-boyfriend Robert (Hugh Panaro) demand she react emotionally to the world around her; Kathy's ex-boyfriend John Paul (Eric Jordan Young) and Charlotte's ex-roommate Cinder (Lea DeLaria) want her to live fully in the moment.
Charlotte's journey of self-discovery proves compelling enough - primarily through LaChiusa's richly varied score and Thompson's sensitive portrayal - to carry Little Fish through solidly from beginning to end. Yet the show lacks the momentum and the complete dramatic and musical unity that so electrified The Wild Party, seldom truly exciting or energizing. It hits all its marks well, but never has quite the "oomph" needed to put it over the top.
This may be due to Graciela Daniele's direction and choreography which are fine but unexceptional, never completely communicating in the same urban language that drips from every LaChiusa's score and libretto. Riccardo Hernandez's set gleamingly suggests New York's glass and steel backbone while Peggy Eisenhauer's lights sparkle and warm; both are closely in tune with LaChiusa's vision. Toni-Leslie James's costumes are perfectly adequate, never over-the-top.
Much the same can be said of the performances, with Thompson firmly leading the way, watchable and dominating throughout. Harriell wears her well-honed city sophistication like a shield, knowing when to let us in and when to keep us out, performing the show's most beautiful and emotional song, "Remember Me," with heart to spare. Ferguson's an effective counterbalance for Harriell, very funny throughout, and equally as capable of handling the more difficult drama as is necessary later. Panaro and Young do well with what they have (which is seldom much), and DeLaria, if sometimes pushing too hard, is a hoot in her role. Celia Keenan-Bolger and Ken Marks, in smaller supporting roles still, round out the cast nicely, but have little opportunity to make an impression here.
Yet LaChiusa can and does impress, time and time again, though perhaps never more effectively than in Charlotte's late-show song, "Simple Creature." It's one of the most stirring and artfully constructed musical scenes to hit the New York stage in years; it makes Charlotte's complex emotions easily understandable, and puts her neurotic tendencies into focus, giving her direction and making us understand - without ambiguity - what the real aim of Little Fish had been from the beginning.
As she begins the process of taking the final steps on her road to understanding and loving herself, so can we. Charlotte's struggle is sharply defined, revelatory, and entertaining; it allows all of us - whether a little fish in a big pond or big fish in a little pond - to understand ourselves better. Little Fish's imperfections aside, there's little more we could wish from any of today's most vital and exciting musical dramatists, of which LaChiusa has - with Little Fish - reminded us he most surely is one.
Second Stage Theatre