By Patrick O’Brien
The rare sight of Michael John LaChiusa in Chicagoland is reason enough for MT aficionados to hie to Theatre Wit for Kokandy Productions’ regional premiere of his Little Fish. He comes along every few years—BoHo’s Hello Again in 2010, Bailiwick’s Wild Party in 2013—but not nearly as much as the sheer volume of his output would lead one to believe.
LaChiusa is an odd duck in contemporary American musical theatre. He’s certainly one of today’s most divisive writers, even among people that would seem like obvious takers for his decidedly non-commercial ambitions. Depending on who one asks, LaChiusa’s choices of source material are either eclectic or esoteric; his compositions either so precisely tailored to character and situation that no notes go to waste, or allergic to melody; his lyrics, dexterous and literate, or busy and crammed; his characters, well-rounded in their complexities, or emotionally chilly. (He is also one of the rare MT authors to venture solo on writing book, music, and lyrics, either a testament to his singular vision or his lack of focus.)
One of LaChiusa’s lighter works, Little Fish— adapted from two stories by acclaimed short fiction writer Deborah Eisenberg—won’t shake off his detractors’ claims, but it proves more instructive than a checking-off on a theatrical to-do list.
It’s a musical explicitly conceived as an “oblique” parable of ever-lost, ever-striving post-9/11 urban humanity. That day of infamy is never mentioned in text. (It gets name-checked in a sound prologue, setting us in 2002.) No, the problems faced by our striver, Charlotte (Nicole Laurenzi), begin when she quits cigarettes. Yes, begin.
Without her daily fix, not only does she get the physical jitters of going cold turkey, she comes to see there’s not much else filling her days. Sure, she adventures vicariously through the lives of her jet-set friends (Adam Fane, fab, and Aja Wiltshire, ultra-fab). Sure, she’s on friendly-enough terms with her cokey roommate (Teressa LaGamba, funny from the first line). Not much, is it? When the specter of her ex (Jeff Meyer, smarm in a dressing gown) creeps into her thoughts, she starts swimming at the Y to find clarity. Hence, the title.
We’ll get this out of the way first: It’s not a meticulously plotted 90 minutes; the temporal flow goes all sorts of directions; and the characters—Charlotte, in particular—are by and large bourgeoisie ciphers.
On the other hand, that’s also Stephen Sondheim’s Company, a musical whose work Little Fish reaches out across the decades to reaffirm, in its own terms. And even if Little Fish has littler apparent ambition than Company—extolling simpler everyday human connections than marriage—it’s a very delicate but very fine mood piece. And hey, simple everyday human connection ain’t exactly a small ambition.
Sondheim also had his own way to musicalize loneliness and discontent, and LaChiusa has his own, too, one that should not be taken lightly. It is indeed sharply exacting, and his orchestrations turn his “urban noise” into superbly electrifying soundscapes
To sing a bulk of it: the Herculanean Nicole Laurenzi, a New York transplant who puts a flicker of life in this cipher’s eye and propels her Charlotte to the very last lap. She is a most welcome addition to Chicagoland, for sure.
Allison Hendrix and Kory Danielson on direction and music direction, respectively, approach this surfeit of braininess with compassion and flair, a la Loving Repeating. And kudos to Arnel Sancianco and Alexander Ridgers on sets and lights; there’s that old saw about how the less “designed” something is, it’s more apt to be praise. Here, their floating geometries and Edison bulbs are just so handsome and right.
Ultimately, it’s hard to say how well one will take to Little Fish. But when something’s hard, might as well dive in and sort it out for yourself.
Kokandy Productions presents “Little Fish” through August 20 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. More information and tickets are available here.