'Little Voice' an affecting tale

Ellie Mooney and Jered McLenigan in "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" at the Walnut Street Theater's Independence Studio on 3.
Ellie Mooney and Jered McLenigan in "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" at the Walnut Street Theater's Independence Studio on 3. (MARK GARVIN)

The surprising story of a shy singer covers the bases from farce to drama to musical.

Posted: March 30, 2014

What a surprising show this is: first a vulgar farce, then a grim working-class drama, then a tender musical, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at Walnut's Independence Studio on 3, turns and turns again, under the capable direction of Dan Olmstead.

Written by Jim Cartwright, the British playwright best known for Road, the characters and set transfer easily to an American locale. Mari (Denise Whelan) is a loud, blowsy, over-the-hill broad, angry at the hand life has dealt her, but definitely not grieved to have lost her husband. Her daughter, called L.V., for "Little Voice," because she is so quiet, comforts herself with her dead father's record collection, which she plays obsessively.

This central role is played by the lovely Ellie Mooney, whose delicate gestures convey character while her singing voice imitates with uncanny accuracy the voices on L.V.'s records - Streisand, Garland, Patsy Cline, Rosemary Clooney, Helen Reddy, Petula Clark - and she can shift from one to another in mid-measure.

Mari's new boyfriend Ray (Anthony Lawton in a courageous performance, shifting between cruel and desperate) is an "artiste agent," complete with toupee and many rings. When he hears L.V. singing to herself upstairs, he is convinced that she is the act that will make his fortune.

But L.V. is painfully shy and doesn't have the temperament to be a headliner at the sleazy nightclub run by Mr. Boo (the hilarious David Bardeen). The next-door neighbor (Melissa Joy Hart) has far more compassion for L.V. than her mother does. A quiet telephone repairman (Jered McLenigan) provides a little light in this dark world, helping Little Voice find her own voice in a sweet duet that miraculously avoids sentimentality.

I am repeatedly amazed at the way set designers can maximize the small Independence Studio stage. Andrew Thompson gives us a whole house, upstairs and down, and costume designer Katherine Fritz provide lots of tacky clothes.


THEATER REVIEW

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

At Walnut Street Theater's Independence Studio on 3, Ninth and Walnut Streets, through April 13.

Tickets: $30. Information: www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or 215-574-3550.

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