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‘Little Voice,’ Bring Big Dreams To Planet Ant in Detroit

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Planet Ant

By Donald V. Calamia, EncoreMichigan.com

Back in the 1990s, one of Metro Detroit’s most highly regarded directors had a dream – a dream to stage “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” by Jim Cartwright. Life-altering experiences, however, caused Annette Madias to change directions, thus putting the project on hold – possibly forever. Flash forward to 2011 – and guess what script Planet Ant Theatre is planning for its 2011-12 season? And what director’s name comes up for the project – thanks to a long-time friend and colleague?

For those of us old enough to remember Madias’ work, the news of her pending return to the director’s chair became one of the most anticipated events of the season. And coupled with the gossip that began circulating once rehearsals began, one could only wonder if the production would live up to the hype that quickly circulated throughout the community.

So on opening night – surrounded by a packed house filled with many familiar faces from throughout the Ant’s history – Madias sat and watched her dreams unfold. The rest of us were treated to one of the most memorable nights of theater I’ve had so far this season.

Madias, celebrated for her in-depth character work, has plenty to work with here – thanks to both the playwright and the talented cast and crew who accompanied her on this journey.

Cartwright’s story addresses a universal theme – the search for love – and does so through a mother and daughter (and associated friends and newcomers) who are as opposite as opposite can be. Set in northern England in the 1980s, Mari (Linda Ramsay) is an aging, faded beauty whose hunt for a man knows no limits. Desperate to be taken care of, Mari will hook up with pretty much anyone with male genitalia, hoping he’ll be “the one” – and not just “the one for tonight.” (But in the meantime, that’ll do.) Her latest pursuit is Ray Say (Joel Mitchell), a small time talent agent – about half of whose clients are strippers. Arriving at Mari’s home and about to get to know each other in a rather intimate way, Ray hears a voice coming from upstairs. It belongs to Mari’s daughter, nicknamed LV (Inga R. Wilson) for “Little Voice,” who spends hours listening to and mimicking the stack of LPs (long playing albums, for those too young to remember) that belonged to her deceased and loving father. A recluse, LV rarely speaks – and when she does, it’s barely above a whisper and with as few words as possible. Stunned by her amazing voice, Ray sees a meal ticket. So too does Mari – but their tickets are on two different tracks heading in opposite directions. A plan is hatched – and LV begrudgingly makes her public singing debut at a local club. And as you might expect, the show is called “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” for a reason.

Cartwright’s blueprint offers Madias seven opportunities to build interesting and colorful characters. Madias goes far beyond that, however, with seven actors who dig deep into their roles and discover quirky, yet thoroughly identifiable human beings who are all searching for what everyone seeks: acceptance and love by those around them.

That’s especially true of Sadie, a meek soul and Mari’s best friend – despite the outbursts of verbal abuse thrust upon her by her often-soused neighbor. Amy Probst’s performance is not only sweet and heartwarming, it’s also a master class on how a single word – in this case, “OK” – can be delivered multiple ways and mean different things. Add to that her character-defining facial expressions and physical movements, and the result is a fully realized performance that will stick with you long after the show ends.

Similarly, Sean McGettigan plays Billy, a young phone company installer who’s almost as shy and quiet as LV – and as equally fascinated with lights as she is with her records. McGettigan excels at telegraphing Billy’s feelings with only the slightest of expression changes. And watch his eyes: They tell the rest of the story.

Rounding out the cast are Musical Director Mikey Brown, who plays Scottish club owner Mr. Boo. Whatever you do, don’t be late: Mr. Boo opens the show performing in his club – and I doubt you’ll ever hear classics such as “Hot Child in the City” and “Message in the Bottle” performed quite like this ever again. Assisting him on bongos in the second act opening is Dave Davies, who also plays the phone installer in the first act.

It’s the triumvirate of Ramsay, Wilson and Mitchell that steals the show, however.

Mitchell, who could earn an acting nomination pretty much every time he walks onto a stage, is once again a force to be reckoned with as the sleazy agent. The second-act comeuppance he gives Mari is especially powerful – and a scene in LV’s bedroom makes you wonder just how far Ray would go to get the girl to do as he asks. (He had me guessing the whole time.)

In total contrast is Wilson’s LV, whose sadness will chill you to the bone. She also has the difficult task of recreating the unique vocal qualities of some of the most famous female singers of the 20th century – and she does it exceptionally well. Her most revealing moment comes at the conclusion of LV’s second club performance – with a reaction that needs no words to convey her inner thoughts.

If there’s a standout performance, though, it belongs to Ramsay. With a perfect accent that never wavers, Ramsey mines every nuance possible from Cartwright’s complicated character – and the result is a performance that’s as close to perfection as we could possibly expect.

The show’s technical elements are generally well done – particularly Kirstin L. Bianchi’s costumes that place the show firmly in the tacky ’80s and Kate Peckham’s sound design.

The production is not without flaws, however.

A few scenes end a bit too abruptly, thereby not allowing us to fully absorb the impact of what we just witnessed before the lights go down. Also, the creative use of a flashlight needs to be worked on a bit, or risk generating more unintended chuckles as it did on opening night. And decisions made regarding how to create a pivotal effect in act two are saved only by Peckham’s sound choice.

But all in all, Madias’ return to the director’s chair is something to be celebrated. And what a fine return it is!

For tickets and showtimes, visit encoremichigan.com.

Donald V. Calamia is the editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. He is also the theater editor of Between The Lines, for which he created The Wilde Awards, a “must attend” annual event at Detroit’s Gem Theatre that honors the work produced by the state’s professional theaters. Calamia is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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