Chicago Theatre Review

Chicago Theatre Review

Swimming Upstream

July 17, 2017 Reviews Comments Off on Swimming Upstream

Little Fish – Kokandy Productions 


“I never knew what I was like until I stopped smoking,” admits Charlotte, a young woman who has finally said no to her nicotine addiction. She suddenly begins to understand that she used cigarettes as a substitute for all kinds of everyday moments, such as being alone or getting angry and letting off steam. This kitschy, quirky little one-act musical may remind savvy theatergoers a little of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” But what we’re experiencing is Michael John La Chiusa’s 2003 response to how the events of 9/11, just two years earlier, changed the everyday goals of New Yorkers.

In this 90-minute musical, which played Off Broadway for about a month, a 30-year-old woman named Charlotte flip-flops through memories of the past and circumstances of the present, trying to navigate her way toward a more satisfying life. It’s a choppy voyage, to say the least, and it’s filled with a lot of flotsam. All this emotional debris, the kind that floats around cluttering a person’s journey through life, is the focus of this unconventional musical.

Charlotte wakes up to a cacophony of voices running through her head, advising her how to live her life. She’s finally given up smoking, and in doing so, is suddenly seeing herself and everything around her more clearly. For instance, she’s pretty confident that she did the right thing by leaving her emotionally abusive lover, Robert. This older, hypercritical and demeaning man never had anything positive to say to Charlotte. So she flees Buffalo for Manhattan, hoping to start all over again with a better life. But when she shows up unexpectedly at Cinder’s apartment, a distant friend of a friend, she encounters a less than cheerful welcome. This unpleasant young woman is encumbered by her own emotional baggage and problems, not the least of which is an addiction to hard drugs. Charlotte eventually sees the light and flees from this situation, as well.

Overwhelmed by the the pressures of the big city, Charlotte recognizes that all she does is run away from people and situations. Without many alternatives, her move doesn’t offer a very satisfying way of life. She meets a sexy young man named John Paul, who flirts his way out of her life while on the dance floor. Soon Charlotte is thwarting the unwanted advances of her lecherous boss, Mr. Bunder, while Marco and Kathy, her only real friends, suggest more fulfilling projects for Charlotte. At first Charlotte takes up swimming at the YMCA, but finds it boring and realizes she’s not very good at it. Then she takes up running, but that doesn’t offer much satisfaction, either. Eventually Charlotte learns that it’s more fulfilling simply being a little fish in a big pond where you can find comfort swimming with others.

This musical is a patchwork of people, problems and payback. As the narrator and main character, Charlotte’s attempt to figure out her life soon turns frustrating, not only for her, but for the audience, as well. The piece begins to lose its steam about halfway through, with its unconventional, nonlinear structure. This isn’t your typical book musical and it’s difficult to follow. The show flies back and forth in time and place, often with very little setup or description. We’re left with a confusing montage of vignettes that eventually runs out of steam and just ends, without a very satisfying conclusion.

LaChiusa’s score is wide-ranging. It’s mostly free form, heavily influenced by jazz, and peppered with interludes of Latin beat and rock. More often than not the music resembles snatches of dialogue or the haphazard thoughts and sounds of the big city, rather than actual songs. The score begins, appropriately enough, with “Opening Days,” and works its way through topical tunes like “Robert,” “The Pool,” “The Track,” “Flotsam” and, of course, “Little Fish.” Perhaps the most touching piece is a musical monologue by Charlotte’s new best friend, entitled “Remember Me.” Kathy’s health problem inspires this heartbreaking song as a succinct, emotional trip through this young woman’s tragedy. The climax of the show comes with the leading character’s reflective response to the past 85 minutes, entitled “Simple Charlotte.”

Allison Hendrix, a founding member of this distinguished theatre company, directs her production with passion and  promising wit. It’s not an easy piece to guide from page to stage, but the show’s strong female characters, based upon two short stories by Deborah Eisenberg, speak strongly to her. Hendrix is ably assisted by musical director Kory Danielson, and his talented six-member onstage band, along with choreographer Kasey Alfonso, who provides a spirited array of appropriately angular dance moves that match the geometric sharpness of the show. The production is economically staged, using every inch of Arnel Sancianco’s slick, multilevel glass, steel and concrete-inspired cityscape scenic design; and costumer Kate Setzer Kamphausen has fashioned a mostly black and blue wardrobe for her cast that’s both sophisticated and, perhaps, reflects some of the pain felt by these bruised characters.

The cast is very good and has no trouble translating LaChiusa’s challenging score, although the sound level could be cut back, just a bit. Making an impressive debut with this company, Nicole Lorenzi gives an honest, heartfelt performance as Charlotte. Lovely Aja Wiltshire, fresh from Steep Theatre’s terrifying “Hookman,” creates a Kathy who lights up the stage with every entrance. Always terrific, Adam Fane is sassy and saturated with attitude as Marco; while Teressa LaGamba, remembered for her moving performance in Kokandy’s “Tomorrow Morning,” is appropriately bitchy and annoying as Cinder.

As egocentric Robert, Jeff Meyer makes a welcome return to the stage, following his impressive leading role in Kokandy’s “Assassins;” Casey Hayes takes over the role in August. And Carl Herzog, so strong in Theo Ubique’s “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra,” makes a smarmy Mr. Bunder, among other characters. Last seen in Kokandy’s “The Wiz,” Kyrie Courter returns to Theater Wit as Anne Frank, a curious literary reference in this musical. As Curtis Bannister’s understudy, Darren Patin does a fine job, appearing at the press performance in the role of John Paul. He’s particularly good as the friendly young man who sells Charlotte her daily newspaper and pack of cigarettes.

While this musical is sometimes a difficult story to follow, it’s performed here, much to Allison Hendrix’s credit, with a heart full of conviction and enthusiasm. Charlotte’s tale is true to the Eisenberg short stories, that inspired this Michael John La Chiusa’s musical, by not offering any kind of heroic triumph. The show’s simply about real people living in the big city. It deals with struggle and survival, finally learning that one doesn’t always have to swim upstream against the current, but can find contentment in being a little fish swimming with other guppies.


Reviewed by Colin Douglas     


Presented July 9-August 20 by Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.

Tickets are available in person at the Theater Wit box office, by calling them at 773-975- 8150 or by going to

Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting

About the Author -


Comments are closed.