Review: The Lonely Few Cranks Out Its Story Like a Decibel-Pounding Concert
The Lonely Few, a world premiere rock musical at the Geffen Playhouse, does away with conventional narrative. It immerses its audience in rock clubs and then slides open the doors to the band preforming, giving a glimpse into the frayed lives behind the instruments. Gathering an exquisite cast of Broadway up-and-comers, the stripped-down production — and the lives it portrays — feels achingly real.
The plot is an exercise in simplicity: Girl meets girl. Girl loves girl. Girl loses girl. Lila (Lauren Patten) splits her time between working at the local grocery store, leading a band called the Lonely Few, and protecting her older, alcoholic brother (Joshua Close) from self-harm. A successful songwriter, Amy (Ciara Renée), enters the dank honky-tonk where Lila performs, and they fall instantly in love. Amy brings opportunities to the band, but even though Lila hungers to escape her Kentucky town, Amy disrupts the co-dependent sibling relationship, terrifying the risk-advise Lila.
Rachel Bonds's book lacks surprises, but she understands these characters so well that the events resonate throughout. The audience always cares about each character's needs, dreams, and fears, and comprehends each person's decisions, good and bad. The songs by Zoe Sarnak capture the '90s post-punk and neo-rockabilly sounds of L7, PJ Harvey, and Melissa Etheridge, and they speak to the characters' despair in a podunk town, to their middling faith in a bright future, and, for Lila and Amy, to their burgeoning love.
Patten and Renée are tender as the conflicted lovers. Both have outstanding rock voices. Patten, who already won a Tony for her performance in Jagged Little Pill, finds the quiet moments even in the loudest songs. Renée is a powerhouse who takes it to church, particularly in If Your Child with co-star Thomas Silcott. Silcott, as a past parent-figure for Amy, is affecting in a scene where, despite bad past decisions, his character Paul decides to step up to protect someone he loves. As the deadbeat brother, Close creates a bond with Patten so that it's clear his emotional skidding reflects his weakness, not a lack of love. Damon Daunno and Helen J Shen give distinct performances as the fellow bandmates desperate for a lifeline.
Directors Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott position the audience around rundown clubs of the Deep South. One can almost smell the stale beer emanating from the floors. The economical set by Sibyl Wickersheimer brilliantly captures multiple bars, a living room, and a hidden spot for the musicians. The club names, written in neon at various times (Wondering, Wandering, Nowhere, Take Me Away), echo the characters' states of mind. Due to the clever set, the directors are able to have Close sit in the dark in his living room, while his sister and friends sojourn around the country, reminding the audiences that despite the band living to the max, there's always the Sword of Damocles burden he has hanging over his sister's future.
Adam Honoré's lighting matches the music's energy. He allows the characters to bask in yellow luminescence and pulsate with a gobo template creating rays of light. Sound designer Nick Kourtides teases the sounds of speeding cars driving past the different clubs. Samantha C. Jones's lived-in costumes replicate the characters' unpretentious young lives. The speakers themselves are realistically loud. The ushers provide ear plugs, and they are highly recommended. My spouse's Apple Watch alerted us that several songs reached 85 ear-exploding decibels.
The Lonely Few follows the lead of the promising composer Stephen Trask, who composed the music for both the punk-pop classic musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the film Prey for Rock & Roll. The garage-band rock composed for this musical can tell a journey of fresh love with the same poignancy that stage musicals have utilized with more conventional music for generations.