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Review: ‘The Lonely Few,’ a Geffen musical about lesbian rockers in love, is full of ancient heart

Geffen Playhouse’s intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater has been transformed into a dive for the world premiere of the musical “The Lonely Few.” Tables and chairs were set up in the playing area to immerse a portion of the audience in the raucous, drunken atmosphere of a Kentucky roadhouse.

The Lonely Few is the name of the band that plays at Paul’s Juke Joint. Leader Lila (Lauren Patten), who works as a clerk at the local Save-A-Lot during the day, is too talented to be trapped in this backwater. But she finds herself unable to leave her older brother, Adam (Joshua Close), a mild-mannered fool with a substance abuse problem.

Lila and Adam have taken care of each other since their mother died. Lila has big dreams for herself, but she values ​​loyalty more than success. To stay sane, she releases her pent-up frustration at her concerts, where her furious guitar, her powerful voice, and her introspective songwriting ignite the daily monotony of her life with a Dionysian flame. .

On one of these occasions, a special guest appears at the bar. Amy (Ciara Renée), a black singer-songwriter who is testing the waters of a solo career, turns up one night at the invitation of Paul (Thomas Silcott), her former stepfather, who is not only the owner but also the drummer of Lonely. Few. . Amy immediately recognizes that Lila is not just any singer. She also sees that they have something else in common as lesbian rockers in the bigoted South.

A love story comes into meteoric focus in this musical, which features a book by Rachel Bonds and a score by Zoe Sarnak. Two women attached to their cultural roots but alienated by the conservative values ​​of their communities have for each other the answer to problems that until now seemed insurmountable.

Lila, yearning for freedom, needs a way out. Amy, hungry for belonging, needs a way in. But the course of true love never ran smoothly, as Shakespeare memorably put it. And the marginalization of being queer will only compound the obstacles to a possible happy ending for these characters.

Stage actors are often called upon to play famous rock stars in jukebox musicals, which draw on the audience’s affection for popular music catalogs. “The Lonely Few” has its cast members earn their rock and roll stripes.

There’s no cover band medley of old hits to win over restless audience members, so artists have to cast their own incandescent spell when they play. Fluently directed by Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott on a set by Sibyl Wickersheimer that makes imaginative use of the unsuspecting corners of the Geffen Playhouse’s second stage, the production is fortunate to have two talented lead singers.

Patten won a Tony Award for her outstanding performance in “Jagged Little Pill,” the Alanis Morissette and Diablo Cody musical in which she delivered a version of “You Oughta Know” that regularly brought the house down. (The role was the subject of some controversy related to the production’s handling of the gender identity of Patten’s character.) Lila’s musical style is eclectic, combining the fickle emotionalism of Morissette’s music with the classic rock authority of Melissa Etheridge. Patten makes Broadway virtuosity perfectly compatible with roadhouse authenticity.

Renée has amazing vocal agility that can span the upper range from the lower depths. Her singing is almost too good, but she’s playing a breakout recording artist whose stardom would be greater were it not for society’s narrow-mindedness. She endows Amy with the melancholy glow of an artist struggling to clear an independent path for herself.

Ciara Renée and Thomas Silcott in “The Lonely Few” at the Geffen Playhouse.

(Jeff Lorch/Geffen Playhouse)

The entire cast is terrific, with each role engraved with an enticing idiosyncrasy. Like Adam, Close honors the captivating generosity that makes it so difficult for Lila to abandon her brother. Silcott’s Paul casts himself as a man who wants to rectify his past lapses, and this integrity comes to light as Paul and Amy delve into the complications of his history.

Helen J. Shen portrays JJ, the precocious 17-year-old keyboard player for the Lonely Few, in a way that underscores the character’s mad ambition without losing sight of the young man’s otherworldly sensibilities. As Dylan, Lila’s bandmate, friend and booster, Damon Daunno (Tony nominee for his portrayal of Curly in Daniel Fish’s revival of “Oklahoma!”) creates a charming goofball eager to travel big. even since he knows that he will have to get off soon and face his responsibilities at home.

The exhilarating singing, inventive staging, and charming acting can’t completely cover up the musical’s main problem: choppy storytelling. It can be tempting to blame the book on Bonds, which has some clichéd dialogue, predictable plot lines, and familiar confrontation scenes. Interestingly, for a modern musical about a lesbian couple, the writing harkens back to the sentimental tactics of an earlier, more conventional age. (Playwright William Inge’s characters, desperate to find a connection in inauspicious provincial circumstances, have a surprising amount in common with “The Lonely Few” gang.)

Lauren Patten and Joshua Close in "the lonely few" at the Geffen Theatre.

Lauren Patten and Joshua Close play siblings in “The Lonely Few,” directed by Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott.

(Jeff Lorch/Geffen Playhouse)

But it’s not just the book’s fault. It is the relationship between the drama and the music that is out of place.

Sarnak’s lyrics are often drowned out in the volume of the production’s sound, frustrating those who expect songs in a musical to advance the story. But not all of the audible lyrics shed significant light on the characters, and some create jumps in the action that don’t seem entirely deserved.

The pacing of the show, as a result, goes off the rails. The songs grow in lyrical interest in the second act, but the narrative drags, especially in the long final stretch. “Wondering” beautifully exposes Amy’s vulnerability and “Always Wait for You” movingly expresses Lila’s romantic realization, but the psychological context and theatrical deployment of these numbers could use some tweaking.

“The Lonely Few” cries out for clarity and compression. But it’s an endearing new musical with untapped potential. Love stories, even queer ones, can’t help but be a bit dated at their core. But this one still has more originality to discover.

‘The Lonely Few’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, 10886 Le Conte Ave., LA

When: Tuesday to Friday 8 pm, Saturdays 3 and 8 pm and Sundays 2 and 7 pm. (Check for schedule changes). Ends April 30.

Tickets: Starts at $59

Information: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.org

Execution time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (with an intermission)