NEW YORK — `THE Rise and Fall of Little Voice'' won the 1992 Olivier Award for Best Comedy in its London debut, and went on to further acclaim at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Now, coming full circle in its own rise and fall, the production debuted on Broadway just last Sunday and is closing tomorrow after many negative reviews.
Nonetheless, the play has some merit.
The title figure of Jim Cartwright's play is the latest in a long dramatic tradition of emotionally repressed characters who have found an alternate means of expressing themselves.
Little Voice (Hynden Walch), as she is known, is shy to the point where she barely speaks, but she does have a talent in which she blossoms. She sings, not in her own voice, but in uncanny replications of the divas whose records she treasures and whom she listens to over and over. Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, even Shirley Bassey; when Little Voice opens her mouth to sing, these are the voices that come out.
It's a cute theatrical concept, even if it is gimmicky. But Cartwright, whose biggest previous success was the play ``Road,'' in which the audience traveled to different sections of a theater that had been set up to resemble different neighborhoods in a village, is no stranger to gimmicks.
Like ``Road,'' however, this work doesn't have much resonance beyond its clever concept. The first few times Little Voice does her stuff, it's amusing and fun. As the evening goes on, and we realize that the playwright is not going to expand on the idea, our interest wanes.
One reason for Little Voice's stunted emotional state is her mother, Mari Hoff (Rondi Reed), a loud, drunken, unhappy woman whose response to her daughter's record playing is to bang loudly on the wall with a broom handle.
One night she brings home a small-time show-biz figure named Ray Say (George Innes), who hears Little Voice and brings her to the attention of Mr. Boo (John Christopher Jones), a local nightclub owner.
Everyone is interested in exploiting Little Voice, except the kind and painfully shy telephone repairman Billy (Ian Barford), who hoists himself to his second-story window with his cherry-picker in order to woo her.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Rondi Reed exuberantly repugnant as Little Voice's mother. As an overweight neighbor who drops in periodically, Karen Vaccaro offers a funny deadpan performance, and in one hilarious scene reveals a mean dancing ability.
Hynden Walch is compelling in the title role, managing the difficult feat of making her character both creepy and sympathetic. An accomplished mimic as a singer, she offers great fun in the character's vocal characterizations; the audience often breaks into spontaneous cheers as she sings in a new voice.
It's a risky device, showing an audience a talent that is supposed to be wowing the characters onstage, but here, thanks to Walch's talent, it works.
Unfortunately, much of what goes on in the play besides the singing is desultory and cliched. Most of the people onstage are so peculiar that we care little about them. The second act is particularly lethargic, and Simon Curtis' direction doesn't do much to enliven it.
By the end, after events have reached a fever pitch, Little Voice manages to reconcile her feelings and find her true voice. One senses that the playwright is still searching for his.