Chicago Theatre Review
Worthy of the Journey
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice – No Stakes Theatre Project
It’s always exciting when a brand new company braves the odds and bursts forth onto an already-crowded Chicago theatre scene. No Stakes Theater Project is the latest company to enter the local spotlight, debuting in the Belmont Avenue Theater District, with British playwright Jim Cartwright’s challenging 1992 play about a painfully shy, reclusive young woman who expresses herself through song. This musical comic-drama had its American premier at Steppenwolf Theatre the following year and later transferred to Broadway. A film version eventually hit movie theatres in 1998, simply entitled “Little Voice.” It starred Jane Horrocks in the title role, from television’s “Absolutely Fabulous,” and featured Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent. Technically not a musical, the play features several familiar songs.
Little Voice is a young woman who’s buried herself in her room, mourning the death of her late father. LV (as she’s called) spends her days and nights holed up, obsessively playing records that her beloved father left her. Like Laura in “The Glass Menagerie,” LV is timid and reticent, a loner who prefers the solace of her collection over interaction with other people. In this case, the girl’s comfort is provided by vinyl, rather than glass. Also like Laura, Little Voice shares a tiny, rundown house with an oppressive, loudly nagging mother. In addition, her mother, Mari Hoff, is also a loose, alcoholic with very little going for her and not much promise for a sound future. Man-hungry Mari thus constantly trolls the bars of Northern London on a liquor-infused hunt for fresh meat.
She finds Ray, someone she thinks is the real deal. He’s a two-bit, fast-talking talent scout for local nightclubs. With the record albums her only friends, LV has become a spot-on mimic of the famous artists to whom she listens, including legends like Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey. One night, Ray overhears LV singing up in her room and he decides that there lies a pile of gold just waiting to be mined. While Mari mistakes the agent’s interest for affection, Ray’s real enthusiasm is for the money to be made off Little Voice’s talent. The story’s interspersed with blown fuses, both real and emotional, as LV often plunges their dilapidated house into darkness while playing her records too loudly. This will have a disastrous effect later in the play. An intriguing tale of hopelessness Cartwright’s play turns to hope as, in the end, LV finally finds a voice of her own.
This play isn’t easy to pull off for many reasons. Director and group founder, Erin Shea Brody stages the drama with skill and sound pacing. The story doesn’t play out as smoothly as it begins, and the second act seems to build to a climax several times over. There are many technical issues demanded by this script, as well. The production requires a set featuring four rooms, a staircase and an upstairs window large enough for someone to escape. Then there are additional moments occurring on the street outside the house, as well as two important scenes taking place in a local nightclub. Finally, the script demands that the house catches fire, which this production handles quite well. Grant Sabin, Mike Durst, Joe Court and Paul Deziel have all earned their paychecks and deserve much praise for their well-executed set, lighting and sound designs, as well as for a nightmarish list of props and set dressing. Moriah Lee Turner has created a wardrobe of appropriately tacky, vintage costumes. The ensembles she’s designed for Mari and Sadie are especially fun, as are Ray and Mr. Boo’s double-knit suits.
But the real test of this play is in the casting of Little Voice. While all six characters require talented actors, this character demands a skilled dramatic actress who can also convincingly impersonate a roster of famous, well-known singers. A recent graduate of Columbia College, Scarlet Sheppard does a creditable job with this challenging role. While not always hitting the impressions dead on, Ms. Sheppard is surprisingly good, especially as Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. Her renditions of “The Man That Got Away,” “Get Happy” and “I’m Just a Little Girl From Little Rock” are authentic-sounding. Undoubtedly the actress will continue to improve and become even stronger with each performance. Where Ms. Sheppard particularly excels is in her portrayal of the withdrawn, tormented LV. As the bashful, uncommunicative teenager who conveys more with facial expressions and body language than she does verbally, Scarlet Sheppard is terrific. She just needs to be sure that, in her quieter spoken moments, she can still be heard in the back row.
A standout in Remy Bumppo’s “Our Class,” Rebecca Sohn roars onto the stage as Mari, fully in control and filled with spit and vinegar. Equally challenging, Mari has a lot to say, her sassy lines often written in alliterative, venom-spewing tongue-twisters. Ms. Sohn handles her dialect particularly well and she creates a character who’s always believable, audible and understandable. Almost bursting out of her provocative, tight-fitting costumes, Ms. Sohn ably handles everything this script throws at her…and in stiletto pumps, to boot. Reliable character actor Will Casey has a field day playing Ray. He wisely keeps his character’s smarminess to a minimum, making Ray almost warm and charming, especially as contrasted with the bombastically abrasive Mari. His best scene occurs when, after her disastrous first attempt at singing, he subtly persuades Little Voice to have another go at at the nightclub.
Greg Mills is funny as the phone man, but especially enjoyable as nightclub owner, Mr. Boo. He also proves to be comfortable with some required standup improv, as well demonstrating impressive talent as a pianist. Johnathan Wallace makes a likable, equally reticent Billy, a perfect romantic match for Little Voice. But the actor who steals this production is Marssie Mencotti, as Sadie. Another character given minimal dialogue, this actress wins laughs with her dumpy appearance, her honest, contorted facial expressions and her varied delivery of a single word, “Okay.” Simple, lovable and charming as can be, Ms. Mencotti’s portrayal of Sadie is one of the best reasons to see this production.
As a first-time outing for a brand new company, No Stakes Theater Project makes an auspicious debut with this difficult play. Well-cast and impressively directed and acted, Jim Cartwright’s play offers challenges for even the most accomplished theatre company. Not only requiring a talented cast playing difficult roles, as well as supplying a variety of difficult technical demands, the script itself is choppy. The second act includes a few false endings that make for a bumpy ride on the way to its final payoff. Still, the special magic that occurs whenever Little Voice astounds the audience with her unexpected musical impersonations is worth the journey.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 17-September 5 by the No Stakes Theater Project at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.