Giving up smoking is an unlikely premise for a musical. But that’s what sends LITTLE FISH by Michael John LaChiusa on its way. The main character Charlotte vows to stop smoking in the opening scene and spends the next 90 minutes in search of tobacco-free renewal in New York City.
Make no mistake, this is not Charlotte from Sex and the City’s quartet of sleek women stalking Manhattan streets in designer heels. LITTLE FISH’s Charlotte, played with unpretentious charm by Nicole Laurenzi in Kokandy Productions’ compact staging, wears sneakers and looks like someone we might actually know. Conversely, she and the rest of the youthful cast seem to know the characters they embody. Their clarity is helpful because so much of this chamber musical, loosely based on a pair of Deborah Eisenberg short stories, strikes this viewer as elusive.
Kokandy Productions signals another era
Though Kokandy presents LITTLE FISH without reference to a specific time period, we get signals that it’s another era. Charlotte has no cellphone and buys cigarettes and papers at a corner newsstand. An aspiring writer, she can get a paying job with a neighborhood newspaper that’s distributed in stacks on the floor of ATM’s. And if a print journalism job isn’t 1980s enough, her boss behaves suggestively in a bar, cigarette and martini in hand, without fear of sexual harassment policies.
LITTLE FISH’s YMCA days and flotsam nights
What hasn’t changed since then is the loneliness of being a sensitive young person adrift in an unforgiving town. Charlotte leaves an emotionally destructive boyfriend (Jeff Meyer) behind in Buffalo to make her way to the Big Apple. There, she rents a room from Cinder (Teressa LaGamba) , the coke-snorting owner of a dress shop, and finds friendship with the stunningly beautiful Kathy (Aja Wiltshire) and supportive Marco (Adam Fane).
As she forms these relationships, Charlotte avoids smoking by joining a dowdy YMCA to swim, run and endure people who mock her limited stamina. Her addiction to nicotine isn’t nearly so powerful as her addiction to low self-esteem. In one of LITTLE FISH’s stranger moments on the path to self-realization, Charlotte dreams of the historic Anne Frank singing, “Some bits of this/Some bits of that/What you see as flotsam is more…” The encounter doesn’t quite make sense but life for little 20-something fish in New York usually doesn’t.
Connecting LITTLE FISH’s dots
Despite a narrative that wanders as much as the main character, director Allison Hendrix’s staging is surefooted. Arnel Sancianco’s minimal set suggests an urban environment and allows movement to flow gracefully. The six-person orchestra and vocally strong cast deliver the fusion score with spirit.
For those who have never experienced being flotsam in a big city, LITTLE FISH will not resonate. Why all this flailing from one thing to another, all this struggling to find purpose? For those of us who have been there and done that in New York -- with or without tobacco -- the scattered dots of LITTLE FISH may connect even if they don’t really lead anywhere.
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning, Emmy-nominated playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre.