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The Lonely Few

Theatre Review by Kimberly Ramírez - May 20, 2024

Lauren Patten, Taylor Iman Jones, and Helen J. Shen
Photo by Joan Marcus
A girl-meets-girl love story takes center stage at the Newman Mills Theater, ready to amp up your summer pride with a vibrant celebration of lesbian love. Presented in the style of a rock concert (with protective earplugs offered at the entrance), this timely and immersive queer musical transforms the sprawling MCC stage into a rowdy Kentucky roadhouse. The audience doubles as denizens of Paul's Juke Joint, a refreshingly cool oasis in a conservative country town. While the show's plot still needs fine tuning, The Lonely Few is packed with plenty of steamy scenes and moving melodies sure to strike a chord in your soul.

The leader of the house band launches Zoe Sarnak's integral music and lyrics by belting out the premise: "our drummer owns the joint here / you drink his drinks, we sing for you / the children of this rundown town / you call us The Lonely Few." Lila, played by powerhouse vocalist Lauren Patten (the Tony-winning featured performer from Jagged Little Pill), is captivating from the opening title number. A portion of the audience stay seated at café tables onstage, absorbed in the action around a smaller, second stage. The realistic, metatheatrical scenic design by Sibyl Wickersheimer is dominated by a detailed but underutilized bar area in this dive that's decorated with flyers, posters, spraypaint, and neon.

Paternal proprietor and drummer Paul (a tender Thomas Silcott) has invited his estranged ex-stepdaughter Amy (Taylor Iman Jones, exhibiting exquisite vocal prowess), now an accomplished singer, to pass by on her first solo tour. It's clear they have a past to sort through; Paul's still very protective of the piano that Amy blames him for taking with him when he left her "intolerable and intolerant" mother. But when Amy enters Paul's, she locks eyes with Lila and it's love at first sight.

Because Rachel Bonds' libretto brims with contrivances, this meet cute is compounded by a coincidental problem: Amy's tour is on hold because her opening band bailed. Sure enough, The Lonely Few winds up serving as the substitute, and they all go on tour together. The trip through the southeast (Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas are mentioned) means the band leaves loved ones back in Kentucky. Bass guitarist Dylan (Damon Daunno) won't be home to support his pregnant wife, and Lila's brother Adam (Peter Mark Kendall) battles addiction without the constant aid his sister provides since their mom died. Only young singer/keyboardist JJ (the charming, hilarious Helen J. Shen) seems to manage life on the road without sacrifice, though they complain "I want to write my own songs, but I feel like I don't have enough life to write about."

Meanwhile, Amy's heartfelt numbers aren't exactly what traditional Southern listeners want to hear. Her hit love song, "She," was popularized by a straight male vocalist. Now on tour, she's "actually getting to put my whole self out there for an audience, and you know…I'm black, I'm queer, it's the South." Both Amy and Lila are openly gay and stifled by the Bible belt's lack of diversity and tolerance. They bond through a mutual understanding of music and marginalization while harmonizing in gorgeous, evocative duets and indulging their intense physical attraction. Trust does not prove as simple as lust, however, and Bonds' book forces a few formulaic obstacles in their way. Lila gradually composes "Always Wait for You," a drafting process that's threaded through the "setlist" that serves as the show's score, culminating in a climactic performance at Paul's prized piano.

All of the music is diegetic, emerging naturally as the characters perform, rehearse, or write music in the world of the play, though songs occasionally veer into psychological realms to reveal characters' inner thoughts. The collective musical chemistry and versatility are exceptional; each performer sings and plays at least one musical instrument to pull off a range of classic and alternative rock with tinges of grunge and country, using acoustic and electric guitars, drums, harmonica, fiddle, electric keyboard, and baby grand piano.

Appropriate costuming by Samantha C. Jones features flannels, denim, and graphic tees for most of The Lonely Few, with young JJ donning gothic garb, fishnet patterns, and punky platforms. Amy stands out in embroidered, bespoke outfits that suggest her seasoned success.

The production's organic approach and naturalistic design makes the gimmicky plot feel all the more stilted. Co-directors Ellenore Scott and Trip Cullman aim for fluid, motivated movement across Wickersheimer's multi-level set, but there are jarring, discontinuous gaps imposed by an infinite amount of scene transitions. Car rides seem like unintentionally comic teleportations, and scenes in a Save-A-Lot store situate oddly in the café environment. There are some striking moments, glowingly lit by Adam Honoré, in which characters observe one another's performances or are separated by a distance.

Despite some staging and storytelling shortcomings, The Lonely Few is a fun, feel-good extravaganza that amplifies queer voices and offers electrifying opportunities to feel represented, celebrated, and included. Cast, crew, and audiences deserve an excellent extension further into Pride month—a June that also brings the first U.S. presidential debate in this critical election year where fundamental rights and freedoms are on the line. Bans and biases, especially in Southeastern cities and towns like the ones traveled in this musical, are silencing and oppressing increasing numbers of LGBTQ+ folks. More than just the lonely few.

The Lonely Few
Through June 2, 2024
Newman Mills Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 W. 52nd St., New York, NY Tickets online and current performance schedule: