Jennifer Laura Thompson (center)and cast in Little Fish(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jennifer Laura Thompson (center)
and cast in Little Fish
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Charlotte, the aspiring writer who's trying to find herself in Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish, introduces herself by saying: "I had never known what I was really like until I stopped smoking. By which time there was hell to pay." With the exception of a "for it" appended to the latter sentence fragment, these are the same words with which Deborah Eisenberg starts "Days," one of the two short stories -- the other is "Flotsam" -- that LaChiusa has adapted into a musical from Eisenberg's brilliant 1986 collection titled Transactions in a Foreign Currency.

It's an auspicious beginning for both Eisenberg and LaChiusa, because the crisply declarative remark pegs a very recognizable person and promises crackling developments as she goes about meeting life's challenges without a cigarette in one hand and a lighter in the other. In Eisenberg's "Days," the character is unidentified; LaChiusa plucks her from "Flotsam" as well as commandeering from that story a few friends to add to the Manhattan buddies roster in "Days." In Eisenberg's telling, the recovering nicotine addict of "Flotsam" fills her amusingly described down-time by swimming daily for a number of months and then switching to running track at a local Y. Only then does she shakily conclude that the point of life is to enjoy it.

In dramatizing the tale of someone for whom actual running represents metaphorical standing still, LaChiusa didn't trust what Eisenberg penned. Anyone musicalizing material will, of course, find places for songs that elaborate on larger-than-life moments. LaChiusa expands the opening line into a lively ditty in order to drive home Charlotte's plight and also as a means of introducing the rest of the eight-member cast. He also conjures, with set designer Riccardo Hernández, a diverting swimming pool interlude. He retains some of Eisenberg's sticky situations; for instance, Charlotte (Jennifer Laura Thompson) dates John Paul (Eric Jordan Young), who's been going with good friend Kathy (Marcy Harriel). Eisenberg's loopy dialogue is frequently kept, too. "Pirogi?" Kathy's roommate Cinder (Lea DeLaria) offers, interrupting a conversation about dresses. Later and out of nowhere, there's a droll one-liner about anesthesiologists working around people who are always sleeping.

LaChiusa has felt the obligation, in shaping his 90-minute tuner, to make more of Eisenberg's economical pieces than she did. He sees "Flotsam" and "Days" as an opportunity to comment on the importance of having friends in the City and also on the importance of having fun. Often, he points out in song and patter, friends and fun are mutually exclusive -- but just as often, they mesh.

Little Fish doesn't add up to much, however; as LaChiusa reworks Eisenberg's idiosyncratic source material, he makes Charlotte static and the stories bromidic. Charlotte undergoes a number of travails but never changes. She swims, runs, has a drink with grabby Mr. Bunder (Ken Marks) from the office, pals around with Kathy, and argues with the confrontational Cinder, but she remains stuck in her rut until after a sufficient amount of stage time peels away. Then, LaChiusa abruptly ends his piece by letting the tired, tiresome Charlotte endorse what she's been repeatedly told: Friends and fun are essential needs for today's deracinated New Yorkers.

By the way, nowhere in either "Days" or "Flotsam" does Eisenberg mention the little fish of LaChiusa's title; perhaps she does so somewhere else. Whatever, it's difficult to imagine her using the phrase to conjure anything as generic as LaChiusa posits. Charlotte, called "little fish" by lifeguards at the Y pool, eventually accepts that she is one of the little people who make Manhattan what it is. During the proceedings, LaChiusa throws in other little-fish references as well. A gallery that Charlotte and her gay friend Marco (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) visit is showing paintings of fish; and, while on her trip to Peru, Kathy sees ancient carvings of fish. The point is driven home: Throughout history little fish have survived and thrived by accepting their anonymous status.

Jennifer Laura Thompson, Lea DeLaria,and Eric Jordan Young in Little Fish(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jennifer Laura Thompson, Lea DeLaria,
and Eric Jordan Young in Little Fish
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
All might be forgiven if LaChiusa's music and lyrics had something. Well, they have something -- an intriguing melodic line here, a tempting rhythm there, a cute rhyme somewhre else. ("Neurotic" is rhymed with "aquatic" in a song called "The Pool.") But, by the time the final note fades, it's evident that the songwriter has produced another of his unsatisfying scores. It would be easy to say that LaChiusa has a gift for melody but can't write a song. That, however, is not quite accurate; it's that he refuses to stud his musicals with songs written according to old conventions. Even when Mr. Bunder, in his cups at a bar, sings along with a standard he says his dead ex-wife loved, LaChiusa resists writing a pastiche; instead, he gives us "By the Way," which plays around with being 32 bars worth of sentiment but eventually fizzles.

If a tunesmith doesn't want a score to be merely an accumulation of discrete ditties, he's within his rights. Those intentions may even be admirable. Still, he is (or should be) obligated to keep his melodies and rhythms from rambling aimlessly or remaining determinedly undeveloped. Of course, there's plenty to be said for scores that don't yield up all of their charms on a first hearing, but what good are they if no one wants to listen a second time? This, all too often, seems the case with LaChiusa's work.

Graciela Daniele directs and choreographs Little Fish with familiar notions about scattering people to far ends of the stage as a reflection of metropolitan isolation and aggregation. Now these frenzied New Yorkers are separated; now they're brought together in twos, threes, and more, as the closing song notes. Accordingly, the cast troops inexhaustibly over Riccardo Hernández's chrome-walls-and-walkways set, a clever extension of Rem Koolhaas's streamlined Second Stage auditorium. Hernández's Y pool -- a tilted rectangle of fabric strips -- is another nice inspiration, especially as lit by Peggy Eisenhauer. Against these hard-edged surroundings, Toni-Leslie James's costumes hit the eye as colorfully as Scott Lehrer's sound design hits the ear. In a choreography-lite production, Maddie Ehlert is listed as associate choreographer.

Playing Charlotte, whom LaChiusa forgets to lend much appeal, Jennifer Laura Thompson sings well and conveys exasperation with aplomb. Marcy Harriell is winning as the sometimes assured, sometimes fearful Kathy. Lea DeLaria, in dreadlocks, is her usual combative self. Rubbery as ever, Jesse Tyler Ferguson is amiable and angry as required. Hugh Panaro, playing the self-consciously grand Buffalo boyfriend whom Charlotte can't forget, is sufficiently unctuous.

Ken Marks, doubling as Bunder and a friendly newsstand guy, connects with his roles. Eric Jordan Young, as the caddish John Paul and a strung-out pot smoker named Jesus, has fun in his eyes and funk in his physicality. And Celia Keenan-Bolger does well in two roles, both of which are called Anne Frank. One is the famous Anne Frank, who appears to Charlotte in a dream. (Why?) None of these performers seem to be little fish at all; they're big fish swimming in an itty-bitty pool.