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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Big Talent Ignites The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
at ArtsWest

Also see David's reviews of Mamma Mia! and Red

Little Voice
Myrna Conn
When a show is designed as a vehicle for a specific performer, it is often the case that the show itself gets lost after the original run, regardless of the play's own innate qualities. In the original British run of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (now receiving its premiere Seattle production at ArtsWest Playhouse) and in the subsequent film (title shortened to Little Voice), the titular role was played by Jane Horrocks, best known for her role as Bubble in the hit TV comedy "Absolutely Fabulous." Horrocks, amazing as she was, wasn't carrying a ramshackle show, but her heels were hard to fill, what with the character having to accurately imitate the likes of Judy Garland, Petula Clark, Edith Piaf and others. Director Christopher Zinovitch (also the ArtsWest Artistic director) showed good judgment in slotting the show for the company's 2011-2012 season, and has found a cast and star capable of making it work.

In Northern England, desperate (and widowed) housewife Mari Hoff seems to have no job, few prospects, and her looks and charms are fading. Her daughter spends nearly all her waking hours in her room with her late father's old LPs of vintage '50s and '60s songstresses, while the alcoholic Mari spends hers drinking, ordering her docile neighbor Sadie around, and now and again bringing home a pub mate for a one-nighter. Small-time promoter Ray Say is one of those who discovers that the daughter, dubbed Little Voice/LV by her anything but little-voiced mum, can vocally imitate all her idols, and to near perfection. Ray sets out, with no regard to LV's feelings, and with Mari's willing acquiescence, to get LV a gig at a local club. The first shot is a bit of a disaster, but spurred on by Ray's feverish encouragement, Little Voice agrees to another shot, and the second time ignites the crowd, and makes Ray even more determined to use her for all he can. Meanwhile, she has fallen for a shy local lad named Billy who is as passionate for lights and lighting as LV is for her music. Ray keeps pushing and driving her far beyond what her fragile psyche can stand, and the career he envisioned for her takes a wayward turn, though LV summons up the inner strength to prevail.

Sounds sad, yes? And yet there is much humor in this odd, ugly-duckling story, and interesting characters for an able cast to bring to life. Peggy Gannon as Mari is quite simply spellbinding in her portrayal of a woman who can't even dream of her faded glory, because there was never any to begin with. Daniel Reaume, bringing to mind Alan Cumming, is the perfect heel as Ray Say, the would-be Svengali to LV's Trilby. Young Myrna Conn is, naturally, the find of the production. Though her voice and mimicry ability are still developing, Conn delivers a smashing Judy Garland and a knock your socks off Piaf, which would seem to be the toughest to pull off, yet she manages to ace this star who died long before she was born. In her scenes with Travis Tingvall, a touching Billy, Conn is beguiling, and her come to Jesus with Gannon's monstrous mum is riveting. Were Conn to return to this role in a few more years, I dare say she would score a home-run with her impersonations as well as her rock-solid characterization, which is already quite a marvel. She also powerfully performs "My Song," interpolated into the show and written specially by her songwriter mom Suzy Conn, and a good addition, as it allows Little Voice to finally find her own voice.

With little stage time and barely any dialogue, Patricia Haines-Ainsworth is rather heartbreaking as Sadie, whose ability to stand up to Mari's manipulations is nearly non-existent. Jesse Smith is game but struggles with his North Country dialect as club manager Mr. Boo, and Zac Stowell finds kernels of comedy in his blip of a role as club drummer Manolito.

Jill Beasley has created a suitably dingy set for the Hoff homestead, but the scene changes where a show curtain is pulled across the main set to simulate the club are clumsy and might have benefited from a more creative approach. Josh Randall's lighting design leaves dark spots a few too many times and Stacy Derk's costumes fare best with the tacky looks for Mari.

This show is worth catching not only because it rarely comes around, but because there is so much to recommend in the production. Thanks, ArtsWest, for giving The Rise and Fall of Little Voice a hearing.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice runs through March 31, 2012, Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. For more info visit www.artswest.org or call 206-938-0339.


Photo: Michael Brunk



- David Edward Hughes



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