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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice — Walnut Independence Studio on 3

untitled (10)Ellie Mooney has the mimic’s knack of catching the essence, the signature sound of a vocalist, and projecting it in a way that goes beyond imitation or impersonation to homage. Her talent served her well as she lampooned performers in “Forbidden Broadway.” It serves her even better as she conveys the greatness of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Patsy Cline, and others as the title character in Jim Cartwright’s “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3.

Mooney is able to capture the catch in Garland’s voice as she intones “Over  the Rainbow” in a style that puts Pink’s pitiful version at the recent Oscars to shame. She also finds the plaintive power in Cline’s singing and the carefree wit in Clooney’s, especially as she breaks into dance doing “Mambo Italiano.”

As important as being able to accurately bend her sound to the rhythms and tones of other performers, Mooney acts the shyness, willfulness, cunning, and romantic awakening of Little Voice with ingratiating aplomb that gives Cartwright’s play an affectionately eccentric edge, a core that lets him knit two swatches of a family story with sure-handed neatness.

Matched with the wonderful and touching Denise Whelan as L.V.’s loud slattern of a mother, Mooney’s quiet, classy performance provides contrast that makes you root for her character as she discovers and declares her independence.

Anthony Lawton, Melissa Joy Hart, Jered McLenigan, and David Bardeen combine with Whelan and Mooney to make Dan Olmstead’s production for the Walnut a broad entertainment that encourages outsized performances but retains heart by being intimate and personal. You care a lot about Whelan’s Mari and Mooney’s L.V. Whalen, Lawton, and Bardeen get to act up a storm while having enough calm moments  to let us get to know their characters. Mooney, McLenigan, and Hart are more internal in their approach but use their eyes and relative easiness to let you know what they’re feeling or how their reacting. McLenigan, who has been a chameleon this season, is particularly deft at assuming an open, dreamy-eyed, bursting-with-intent expression every time he sees Mooney’s L.V., to whom he’s attracted the second she sees her as he is installing a new telephone in her house. Together, Olmstead’s cast keeps things flowing in a lively, engaging fashion that makes you eager to see all the comedy, melodrama, pathos, and music that unfolds.

While many productions these days aim for subtlety, Olmstead aims for size. Cartwright’s characters are intense people. They may be in England’s northern hinterlands (or small-town America since Olmstead opts to forgo English accents although the characters’ speech patterns and expressions are so decidedly British)  where one club serves all and everyone knows everybody else’s business, but they are deeply engaged in their pursuits whether they be to capture a man, find the next big show business sensation, devise ways for a bashful man to get a reclusive girl to notice him, or be free to play records of classic divas and sing in their voices to one’s heart’s content.

“The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” is a busy play with each character, but one, having a decided agenda. Olmstead and company show that bustle and the hopes and ambitions that go with it. Whelan, in an uninhibited, blousy turn as the mercurial and dramatic Mari, brings ten pounds of energy into the tiny Independence Studio’s five pound bag of a space. Mari, who guzzles the dregs of various liquor bottles as obsessively as L.V. absorbs her records, literally does not let an emotion, thought, or complaint go unexpressed. Her life has been catch-as-catch can since her husband, L.V.’s father, died. She has a job to which she never reports and occupies herself, relatively happily, with doing her hair, makeup, and nails, all loud and a tad garish; gossiping with her neighbor, Sadie, a remarkably dressed-down and plain looking Melissa Joy Hart; drinks her gin, yells at Little Voice, and goes out to clubs in her tramp gear hoping a snag/shag a man who might be her next meal ticket.

Mari can be hateful. She is a terrible mother to Little Voice and was apparently a worse wife to the late man of the house.

Mari wallows in the vulgar and tawdry. Yet, she is a life force whose claim that she deserves some happiness and ease rings true in Whelan’s portrayal. Although you realize the seamier sides of Mari, Whelan makes you sympathetic towards her. She’s the neighbor you disdain when talking about her to others, the woman you criticize for her slovenly ways and raucous, brusque, consciously trashy behavior, yet the one whose heart you see shining through all the glitz and noise. Whelan makes Mari as total a person as Mooney makes L.V., and it the glimpse both actresses give you into the inner workings of their individually unusual exterior earthiness and standoffishness that gives Cartwright’s play and Olmstead’s production its spark and its humanity.

Though always optimistic and upbeat, Mari Hoff is in a desperate state when we meet her. She is about to spend her last extra pennies to get a telephone, she rarely considers working, and the house in which she spends her days fighting electrical overloads and ragging her daughter, is falling apart from neglect. Mari is a bit of a mess, but she is an entertaining one. Her personality is boundless. She is a woman who lives for fun, men, and booze, and she can keep herself amused talking about her forays into debauchery, which gauche blouse she will wear that day, and amorphous plans for improving her lot.

Among her burdens is a daughter who doesn’t leave her room but sits all day playing the vintage vinyl left behind when the record store her father operated was closed after his death.

The girl is called Little Voice because she seldom speaks, and when she does, her vocal output is so quiet and slight, you can barely hear her. The only time Little Voice, or L.V., lets loose in when she is mimicking one of the divas who fill her days. These renditions of Petula Clark or Shirley Bassey numbers are done with precision. Mari doesn’t appreciate them. They are just irritating noise to her. But the audience recognizes how gifted L.V., and therefore Mooney, is at creating the tones and peculiarities of various singers’ voices.

The audience is not alone in this. One of the men Mari brings home for a one-nighter after a club crawl, is an entertainment promoter whose clients are not likely to get know much out of the vicinity where he, Ray Say, “discovers” them.

Ray is sharing Mari’s booze and getting randy when L.V. lets out s Streisand-like wail. He is mesmerized. He not only hears talent. He smells gold. Pots of it. L.V. is extraordinary enough to go to the top with Ray on her skirt tails. Wooing of Mari becomes more intense because it gives Ray access to L.V., who won’t appear in front of a stranger and certainly will not share her singing with one.

Ray is so taken with L.V., he brings the town’s club owner to Mari’s to hear her. L.V. is silent that day but when she thinks the impresario, Mr. Boo, has left the premises, she begins to sing, and he hears her from the alley. He must have her.

All of a sudden, L.V. is in demand. Mari wants her to comply with Ray so Ray can visit her pants after coaching and managing Little Voice. Mr. Boo is aware he has a star that could make his club SRO any night she performs, so he pressures Ray and Mari. In addition to the people who want her to sing, McLenigan’s Billy is taken with L.V. and,  and between his awkwardness and her reclusiveness, has to find ways to express his infatuation, like knocking on her upper floor window while he is in the telephone company basket lift or throwing pebbles against her window so she will come to it. L.V. who has a hard enough time finding privacy, is in public demand and in crisis because of it.

Meanwhile, Mari is having a high old time because Ray is constantly present and attentive. She mistakes his need to be around her house with ardor, a misconception that will lead to some heartache.

A lot happens in “Little Voice,” and Olmstead manages it beautifully by concentrating on his characters and how the plot affects them.

I am happy he did not keep the more bombastic characters subdued in any way. Whelan, Lawton, and Bardeen are free to be as expressive or broad as they like, and Olmstead’s formula works. “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” at the Walnut is a solid entertainment with excellent performances that leaves you with the sense that you’ve seen something exciting.

Mooney’s and Whelan’s virtues have been extolled.  Both are brilliant in their roles, Whelan capturing Mari’s pathos and making us love her in spite of her vulgar ways, Mooney expressing L.V.’s sweetness while letting us see the capable, aware woman inside.

The rest of Olmstead’s cast keep the pace Whelan and Mooney set.

Anthony Lawton is all sleek slime as Ray Say. From a small-town point of view, Ray is sharp and stylish. From a general point of view, his clothes say cheap, marginal, and out-of-date. Ray is a hustler waiting for his chance, and Lawton plays him as such.

He also knows how to turn on the con man’s charm and be a lusty partner for Mari and an encouraging coach to L.V. Until, that is, L.V. cannot or will not fulfill all that Ray expects. Then, Lawton shows you the character’s rough side, and he is convincing as local tough who is not taking any nonsense when he sees his future as being so bright if L.V. is the hit he knows, even in this third-class way, that she is.

Lawton and Whelan share a painfully touching scene in which, Ray, angry at Little Voice and in a mood to hurt everyone and everything, tells Mari what a pitiful slut she is and how he only hangs around her for sex and to coax Little Voice to perform.

Ray spares no feelings, and neither does Lawton. He lambastes, and you see Whelan’s Mari being shattered.. Ray is speaking truth, and Mari and the audience know it, but truth is harsh, and Ray is not coating it. Watching Mari wither under the onslaught is heartbreaking. The hurt she feels is shared by the audience. For all we know that Ray is reporting accurately, we like Mari enough to want to spare her this bursting of any bubble she may have constructed to protect and delude herself.

It is a tribute to Denise Whelan that we care so much for Mari and want to shelter her. It is a tribute to Lawton that though Ray is acting out of anger and need for retribution, the actors lets you see the honesty and hear the seriousness in his voice.

Jered McLenigan is darling as the reserved but determined Billy. McLenigan’s character is as quiet and withdrawn as L.V. Just as she has her record, he experiments with lights, including effects he is bringing to Mr. Boo’s nightclub.

The best part of McLenigan’s performance is Billy’s ingenuousness. Every time Billy sees L.V., his face breaks into a closed-mouth grin that raises McLenigan’s cheekbones and makes him look like a man stricken with love. I kept thinking of the old song, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” when I saw the way McLenigan’s Billy looked at Mooney’s L.V.

Also, when Billy spots L.V., McLenigan sets his eyes in a rapturous gaze. His is a dear, sweet performance that contrasts with his recent heroic turn as Mark Antony in Lantern’s “Julius Caesar” or his frightened expression as the haunted law clerk in Act II’s “The Woman in Black.”

Melissa Joy Hart always exudes life. She has a big personality, a big smile, and big voice. Her face is lovely, and she always looks happy on and off stage. I can’t count the times I have seen her work, but is Olmstead’s “Little Voice,” she is a revelation.

All of Hart’s size is compacted into a meek character to looks plain in a way I wouldn’t have thought capable for Hart and who shrinks into the scenery barely saying a word.

Words are not what Hart needs for her character, Sadie’s, arsenal. Expressions tell the story. Sadie is Mari’s confidante. She is a willing yenta and accomplice who listens and reacts. Hart does this amusingly, moving her mouth to one side to look skeptical or bugging her eyes in disbelief. Hart’s in an entertaining stint. I’m still surprised she can be dressed down to look so plain.

David Bardeen is  nicely congenial as the senior telephone installer who comes to Mari’s house to set up her telephone. He breaks out of congenial real fast as Mr. Boo, a club owner who announces acts with the bombastic flourish of an old-time music hall hack. Bardeen is quite funny in the role and is especially good when Mr. Boo is being self-effacing or corny, for instance when the audience boos him and he says, “No disapproval meant. They’re only saying my name.”

Andrew Thompson’s set for “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” shows the disrepair of Mari’s house and the dodgy nature of her electricity. Thompson, with the help of lighting designer, J. Dominic Chacon, stages a believable fire that causes a lot of drama and emotion. Katherine Fritz nails the styles the various characters would wear, finding colorful, pattern-print revealing tops for Whelan, perfect leisure suits for Lawton, and outlandish tuxes and bow ties for Bardeen. She leaves Mooney’s Little Voice in virginal white and finds a combination of dowdy and gaudy costumes for Hart’s Sadie.

“The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” runs through Sunday, April 13  at the Independence Studio on 3 of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787or by going online to www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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