Steppenwolf Theatre Company

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” wrote Noel Coward in Private Lives. But his countrymen Jim Cartwright and Andrew Lloyd Webber seem to have taken Coward’s ironic one-liner as an article of faith: their shows The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and The Phantom of the Opera both endeavor to prove that crowd-pleasing concertizing can compensate for a deficiency of credible human drama.

The two works, as it happens, are variations on a single theme: talented but insecure and undeveloped young female singer worships the memory of her late father through the gift he bequeathed her–the love of music–until her career is taken in hand by a dominating man. In Phantom (adapted from Gaston Leroux’ 1911 potboiler, itself a twist on George Du Maurier’s Trilby), budding opera star Christine Daae is haunted by an “angel of music” who turns out to be a mad genius residing in the Paris Opera catacombs. In Little Voice, a 1992 London hit receiving its U.S. premiere at Steppenwolf, painfully shy LV “Little Voice” Hoff sings along with the records left her by her dead dad Frank–a collection of LPs by such torch-song tragediennes as Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, and Barbra Streisand–until her abusive mother Mari’s boyfriend, a sleazy small-time talent agent named Ray Say, decides to parlay the girl’s gift for musical mimicry into stardom. But the reclusive and neurotic young singer–who’s unable to speak above a whisper when she’s not imitating someone else and can’t even bring herself to pick up the phone when it rings–is overwhelmed by the voices in her head, and a mental breakdown leaves her catatonic.

The centerpiece of Little Voice is LV’s onstage triumph, achieved at enormous psychic cost thanks to the relentless training of the Svengali-like Ray and the contempt of Mari, who only supports LV’s career as a way of hanging onto Ray. Appearing in a tacky nightclub in the unnamed north-country town in which Lancashire writer Cartwright has set his story, LV–“the girl with the greats queuing up in her gullet,” proclaims smarmy emcee Lou Boo (Alan Wilder)–wows the crowd with a medley of impressions as grotesque as it is virtuosic, segueing from the visceral artistry of Garland, Piaf, and Billie Holiday to the garish self-indulgence of Shirley Bassey and the exaggerated sexiness of Marilyn Monroe panting her way through “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Lacking an identity of her own, LV is a bizarre collage of superior originals–momentarily entertaining but lacking in staying power.

The same is unfortunately true of Cartwright’s play. It combines British kitchen-sink drama (A Taste of Honey is an especially strong influence, though that play has a pathos Little Voice doesn’t begin to achieve), show-biz melodrama (notably A Star Is Born and Gypsy), and fractured fairy tale into a sometimes diverting but finally failed study of a wounded psyche healed by love. LV’s collapse is a manifestation of serious emotional illness stemming from a lifetime of psychological torment at the hands of her mother, a vulgar, sluttish drunk who blames her daughter for her own sexual and economic frustrations. Yet a condition that in real life would require professional treatment and perhaps hospitalization is quickly “cured” by the attentions of a gentle telephone installer named Billy, whose main distinction is that he’s almost as soft-spoken as LV. In the play’s “Rapunzel”-like climax, the tongue-tied youth rescues the wan virgin by bearing her out through her bedroom window on a motorized cherry picker (bit of symbolism, that); one scene later, LV is so empowered that she can shout down her loudmouth mother in a cathartic confrontation. Some observers might call this theatrical magic; I call it weak playwriting that avoids the issues raised.

Little Voice does have enjoyable moments in this staging by Englishman Simon Curtis (who directed the world premiere of Cartwright’s Road at London’s Royal Court). The courtship of Billy and LV is sweetly played by Ian Barford and Hynden Walch (who also displays an impressive set of pipes), while Rondi Reed–clad by costume designer Allison Reeds in too-short skirts and too-tight blouses that contrast with LV’s shapeless garb–has loads of fun with Mari’s ribald humor: this is a woman who describes true love as “that twat-bone feeling.” Reed is also amusing as she prepares for a date with Ray (George Innes as an aging hipster in ponytail and gold chains), confiding her “lacquer/liquor” strategy of sex (hairspray and booze to boost her confidence) to her obese neighbor Sadie (the poignant Karen Vaccaro, who continues the Steppenwolf tradition of simulated bodily functions by vomiting onstage). And in the show’s best vignette, Reed and Vaccaro combine hilarity and pathos as they butt-bump to a Jackson Five record. The dialogueless scene has a naturalness, grit, and whimsicality that the rest of the play lacks. Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.


Auditorium Theatre

The international success of Phantom is of course confirmed by now; so is the reputation of Lloyd Webber as a shrewd showman who knows how to substitute hype for heart. And why shouldn’t he? His warmest, wittiest, and riskiest work, Song & Dance, has failed to win much audience support in America (witness the abbreviated run of Candlelight Dinner Playhouse’s recent superb production, even with local favorite Hollis Resnik in the lead).

Meanwhile Harold Prince’s staging of Phantom, in a touring production fresh from the Jackie Gleason Theatre in Miami, is packing ’em in by the charter busload at the Auditorium. Fine with me; Chicago’s economy can use the sales and entertainment- tax income. And audiences are getting what they pay for: empty spectacle. This epitome of 80s excess boasts a theme-park set by Maria Bjornson that includes a 2.5-ton staircase, six “automated” candelabras, and a ten-foot chandelier with 35,000 beads (as a press release proudly proclaims), over-the-top acting (onetime Hubbard Street Dance Chicago member Rick Hilsabeck brings fine physical panache, a powerful if somewhat strident tenor, and a hamminess worthy of Vincent Price to the title role), and reams of predictable, soupy music (a cross between Puccini, Alan Parsons, and a Hammer Films sound track, with pastiche parodies of Meyerbeer, Cherubini, and Stravinsky thrown in) from the composer who turned from rock opera to schlock opera with phenomenal success. To the credit of Lloyd Webber and librettists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, however, their embrace of the dark, obsessive romanticism implicit in Gaston Leroux’ novel is far more satisfying than the mild-mannered coziness of other musical Phantoms seen hereabouts–including the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit version at Candlelight and David Bell, Tom Sivak, and Cheri Coons’s adaptation at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace.

None of these, though, comes close to the 1925 Lon Chaney film for powerfully blending pathos, suspense, horror, and sensuality. But then Chaney had a big advantage: his movie was silent.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.