Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish in Chicago

Started by valmont, Aug 14, 2017, 09:44 PM

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In the delightful company of Diane, Will, and Will, I saw one of LaChiusa's least frequently produced musicals this weekend.  For those unfamiliar with the show, it's about Charlotte, a writer who has just quit smoking, and her struggle to overcome her diction with swimming and running at the Y. Except, it's actually about Charlotte's low self-esteem, Epitomized by her interactions with her ex-lover Robert, who appears in a flashback and also as the constant critic inside Charlotte's head. Except it's really about Charlotte's relationships with her friends and how, during the last year they have supported and sometimes failed each other. Someone on the old board And remarked that it is our generation's answer to Company.

It's far from a perfect show. The score, like virtually all of LaChiusa's work, is exquisite, an urban Rock jazz landscape.  The problems are in the book. I know, it's a cliche to blame a musicals failure on a week book. But this is perhaps a textbook case. The central character, Charlotte, is really not that interesting.  Her struggle to quit smoking is, or rather, it would be if it made any impact on the action at all. In fact, it seems to me that Charlotte's smoking cessation is resoundingly successful, in spite of all her angst and complaining. She only experiences two relapses, and one of those, it's not even clear actually happens as it's recounted as a dream.

There are hints that Charlotte's real problem is not her addiction to cigarettes at all, but an emotional spinelessness aggravated by her experience with Robert. Again, this is potentially interesting, but nothing really is done with it. We see Charlotte interacting with her three best friends.  Marco, another aspiring writer, has just broken away from an abusive relationship with an older man. He tells Charlotte that running gave him a sense of control over his life when he was stuck in that terrible relationship.  Kathy, who I think is a buyer for some sort of retail Enterprise comprable to Jay Peterman perhaps, is in a relationship with a man who she knows is cheating on her. And Cinder, the most fascinating character in the whole show, is a kooky, free-spirited dress designer.  She is Charlotte's roommate; it is her sublet into which Charlotte moves when she escapes Robert . The show is full of interesting characters, but the problem is that there is no real conflict.

We are told by Robert that Charlotte is sentient protoplasm -- a blob.  By which I guess he means someone with no personality or ideas of her own.  Robert's big song is a cruel mockery of Charlotte's aspirations as a writer, and it's clear that this cruelty is why she left him. But he remains with her as the voice of Her inner critic, whom she never really confronts. Charlotte experiences difficult moments with both Cinder and Marco. Cinder has one of the best songs in the whole show, which is saying something because all the songs are very strong, in which she chastises Charlotte for being a terrible friend. This could have been the climactic moment of the show. If the architecture were sound, it would be true that Charlotte is a terrible friend. It would be a moment that forces Charlotte's to examine herself. Instead, it's trivial, because the thing that Cinder is so angry about is that Charlotte's stepped on her towel. By contrast, Kathy has genuine reason to resent Charlotte because Charlotte is the woman with whom Kathy's lover Jean-Paul is having an affair. But this is never a matter of contention between them. Indeed, it's not clear that Kathy ever learns the truth about Charlotte and Jean-Paul.  Marco, having been punched in the face by his ex-lover, unloads on Charlotte for her lack of compassion. This is inexplicably followed by the most tender, beautiful song in the score, the title song which talks about the importance of being a good friend, but doesn't really give any specifics on how.

In a dream, Charlotte, tempted by cigarettes, smokes, and then is visited by the ghost of Anne Frank. This is supposed to be some sort of revelatory moment. Anne has read Charlotte's stories and has some advice for her as a writer. The scene between Charlotte and Anne Frank doesn't really bear any fruit. And this is a shame because it's such a brilliant idea.

The show's climax occurs when Charlotte realizes that she hates running, she hates the Y, it's a dark, dingy place. But again, nothing really comes of this. Instead, she simply move past it, and decides she wants to eat lunch. Apparently, after quitting smoking, simple decisions like whether to eat lunch became a terrible challenge for Charlotte. The problem is we never really saw that in the show.  Another big problem is that shaking the addiction to cigarettes does not really seem like a big deal for Charlotte. We see cigarettes now and then in the show, but as a former smoker, it seemed to me that nobody on stage really understood what nicotine addiction is like. Charlotte's attempts to fill the void left by cigarettes first with swimming and then with running, finally rejecting both, and everything turns out okay.

Still, for this LaChiusa fan, it was worth the trip to hear the score played live by an excellent, tight ensemble.

I was born to ask "why was I born?"