Review: THE LONELY FEW at The Geffen Playhouse

This world premiere musical has a score worth hearing.

By: Mar. 18, 2023
Review: THE LONELY FEW at The Geffen Playhouse
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Once Lauren Patten begins crooning the opening notes, it is clear that The Lonely Few, a new musical premiering at The Geffen Playhouse, is a showcase of musicianship of the highest caliber. Zoe Sarnak's score rocks. It sounds at times like Blondie or the B-52s (I like the B-52s so that comparison is not a dig here), but is so intrinsically connected to the emotional arch of the story being told that it soars like a musical theatre score should. Despite the theatrical facade of a bar and the disjointed experience of hearing "My Funny Valentine" wafting through the lobby, Sarnak's score supplies the show with the grittiness it needs and thus the performance is elevated above the status of the dreaded jukebox musical or feeble attempt at pop-fusion that no one wants to sit through. Basslines thump and the drum kit takes a beating in ways that would make Jason Robert Brown run for his mother.

The performers (I use the term broadly, as the actors play much of the music and the musicians appear within the story) could tomorrow be dropped on Broadway (in New York), on Broadway (in Nashville), or on stage at the Kia Forum and be equally lauded by the varying audiences for their performances. In an upbeat opening number which introduces us to the titular band, it is hard to imagine anyone in the cast holding their own against Patten's firecracker energy and haunting timbre, yet soon enough, Ciara Renée is commanding the space with a smooth, lamenting power. Damon Daunno has clearly met the guy he's playing and he reflects that reality back with a theatrical flair that aligns with his pristinely-trained tenor range, and Helen J Shen holds their own against cast-mates at the top of their games.

The music- performances and score- are what I will remember about this show for a long time. Bravo to music director, Myrna Conn (who appears as a lively fiddler in the show), and music supervisor, Bryan Perri for taking a killer score and a team of impeccable musicians and allowing the music to carry the piece. Rachel Bonds' book finds its footing in the second act, and when it finds its footing it marches along beautifully. Tensions are expertly crafted between characters in ways that feel human and pitiful and ebullient and incendiary, but even aided by the score, the first act is so lacking in character development that it is impossible to be emotionally invested in the show enough to truly be moved.

The show is extremely loud, which is actually really exciting and fun, but lyrics are muddled and lost. If we are being given any exposition in the songs, it is entirely unintelligible in the intimate space. The creative team has stretched themselves to only include diegetic music in the show, which is also very exciting and fun, but it has clearly backed them into a few corners in the storytelling department. Although the story is not really reinventing the wheel (the premise is a very straightforward love story), it almost becomes lighting designer Adam Honoré's job to cue us in that two characters have fallen for each other and convey other key plot elements. He does a good job of it and we are able to tell what's happening, but the ultimate effect is a bit too hokey for the material.

The entire first act trips over itself, slogging mounds of unnecessary exposition into the audience's laps. Let me give you a word of advice: no matter how many times the characters reiterate which one of them owns the bar, who's nephew is the unseen bartender, and who works which job at the local grocery store, don't pay these factoids any attention. These are not Chekhovian guns and they will not be fired later in the show. Why do they explain them six times each? I don't know. But I think if all those explanations are cut, Bonds will have a shot at building a nuanced relationship the audience can root for at the center of the text without adding to the overall runtime. Sibyl Wickersheimer's set ironically follows suit with Bonds' script. The bones are beautifully laid, but I'm not sure we needed to see the state of Kentucky sprayed on the walls three times. We hear their voices. We get it.

Directors Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott are conundrums. At times, especially in musical moments, they seem to be at home in creating immersive staging and playfully representing different locales while honoring the illusion that the audience is in a bar. Rachel Chavkin would be impressed! Yet, once the music stops and the dialogue begins, it seems that every actor has been assigned a prop and an action to keep their hands occupied. The parent volunteers who just staged Grease, Jr. called and they want their staging for "Look at Me I'm Sandra Dee" back!

The show has a lot of promise and it's one that I'm happy I caught in this early incarnation as it seems to have the makings of a great new musical. Can't wait to jam along with the cast recording.




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