For perhaps 10 minutes, an actress named Ellie Mooney gets, and grabs, her place in the spotlight.
In a remarkable explosion of vertuosity, she sings snippets of songs just as Patsy Cline, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland and a bunch of others sang them. She shifts seamlessly and perfectly from one singer to another, in voices clearly recognizable.
She’s doing this not as herself, but as a character named Little Voice, the subject of a play called “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” that’s being presented by Walnut Street Theatre on its third-floor Independence Studio stage. The 1992 play is about a reclusive girl who hides in her bedroom listening to her dead father’s collection of records by famous female singers, and it’s a mixture of improbability and high-octane extremes. It won London’s Olivier Award – the equivalent of our Tony – as best comedy, a puzzling feat for a play devoid of anything you could even generously call funny.
But I digress. The deal here is that the painfully shy Little Voice, whose life has apparently been sucked out of her because her dad has died and her mom is a ragingly nasty alcoholic, has a great voice only when she’s tempted to sing in her bedroom. And it’s the voice of whoever’s singing on the record playing there. Otherwise, she can barely speak at an audible level.
To bring off this play – well, you can’t really bring off the play itself, although director Dan Olmstead valiantly tries and the cast is certainly game – but to bring off at least the idea of this play, you need a terrific singer who’s also a mimic. The blond, lithe and (in this play) sad-looking Mooney, it turns out, is just the ticket. They don’t even need to spin the real records at the Walnut, although they do use them; the recorded Mooney, I’ll bet, would be as convincing as the live one.
The contrived play itself is hardly convincing, even in the hands of highly seasoned actors. Denise Whelan plays the abrasive mom, almost constantly drunk or on the verge, and her scuzzy boyfriend named Ray Say is an exploitive third-rate talent scout who forces Little Voice onto the stage of a fourth-rate nightclub. After this all goes awry – any play with the words “rise and fall” in the title gives itself away immediately — the boyfriend, played by Anthony Lawton, takes to the club’s stage in a drunken stupor and performs at some length, never a good idea for a character and probably for a play.
“The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” has a young telephone installer (Jered McLenigan) who falls for Little Voice and at one point makes a surprise appearance at her upper-level bedroom window at just the right moment to be her own personal Superman, sans costume. The play has a dull and shlubby neighbor (Melissa Joy Hart) who drinks a lot and says little. It has a club owner-host (David Bardeen) who’s way overwritten in an attempt to be so unfunny that he’s funny. (The character’s still unfunny.)
It has scripted destruction of Andrew Thompson’s set that, in this production, doesn’t look much wasted in the next scene. It has a yucky ending in which a happy Beatles song is definitely not all right. And luckily, it has Ellie Mooney and her talented 10 minutes of belting and vocal mimicry.
“The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” runs through April 13 on the third-floor Independence Studio at Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut Street at Ninth. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.