Review: The Lonely Few Presents a Rocking yet Generic Queer Love Story

Zoe Sarnak and Rachel Bonds’s new musical makes its off-Broadway premiere at MCC Theater.

Taylor Iman Jones and Lauren Patten star in Zoe Sarnak and Rachel Bonds’s The Lonely Few, directed by Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott, at MCC Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

The new rock musical The Lonely Few does have one thing going for it. It’s a queer love story in which the queerness of its two main female characters is simply accepted rather than made the source of high drama or tragedy. But celebrating a show for not being something isn’t the same as celebrating it for what it is. For all the progressive bona fides on the surface of Zoe Sarnak and Rachel Bonds’s show, making its off-Broadway premiere at MCC Theater, there beats a heart that is disappointingly banal.

The title derives its name from the Kentucky-based rock band fronted by Lila (Lauren Patten). She, Dylan (Damon Daunno), and JJ (Helen J. Shen) play regularly at a bar owned by Paul (Thomas Silcott), who doubles as the band’s percussionist. They seem content to rock out exclusively in their small town…until rising star Amy (Taylor Iman Jones) — who is also Paul’s estranged daughter — walks into their lives. Not only does she sweep Lila off her feet, but she presents the band with a golden opportunity to be her opening act on her national tour after a previous opener drops out. Lila’s own enthusiasm for this chance, however, is tempered by the relationship with her ne’er-do-well brother, Adam (Peter Mark Kendall), that threatens to hold her back from pursuing her dreams. It’s Amy, though, who inspires her to at least take some steps toward breaking out of her shell.

Lauren Patten, Damon Daunno, and Helen J. Shen appear in Zoe Sarnak and Rachel Bonds’s The Lonely Few, directed by Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott, at MCC Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Love at first sight…lingering domestic trauma…a desire to flee dead-end small-town life. All these familiar plot elements feel cobbled together from off-the-shelf parts. The fact that the show deals in clichés isn’t inherently negative if the creators can find a way to refresh the generic aspects. The most frustrating thing about The Lonely Few, though, is the momentary glimpses it offers of a richer, more distinctive show. Amy’s complaint that her studio hesitated to allow her to tour because of her being Black and queer is intriguing enough to warrant further elaboration, as is the desire JJ voices to be a songwriter herself despite worrying that she doesn’t have enough life experience to be a good one.

That latter thread, though, seems to exist primarily to motivate her big number “I Know I Wanna Try,” which itself exists as a catalyst to bring Lila and Amy closer together. All the characters seem to basically have only one trait/complication: Lila’s codependency with her brother, Amy’s lingering resentment toward her dad, Adam’s self-destructive streak, Dylan’s approaching fatherhood with his unseen wife. Vague allusions to difficult family upbringings and small-town anomie are nowhere near enough to bring these threadbare characters to life. Bonds’s book for The Lonely Few can’t help but seem a disappointment after the sensitivity and inventiveness she displayed in her recent play Jonah.

Sarnak’s music and lyrics evince more of the specificity and eloquence Bonds’s book lacks — at least based on the words I could make out. Jonathan Deans and Mike Tracey’s sound design may be true to the blaring acoustic of a juke joint, but despite copious miking, it also proves to be hell as far as understanding the words the characters sing, at least when Sarnak and Bryan Perri’s orchestrations aren’t in full rock-concert blast mode (for those worried about decibel levels, ushers hand out earplugs before the show).

Lauren Patten, Taylor Iman Jones, and Helen J. Shen appear in Zoe Sarnak and Rachel Bonds’s The Lonely Few, directed by Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott, at MCC Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

For better or worse, that’s in keeping with directors Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott’s semi-immersive concept. In Sibyl Wickersheimer’s scenic design, the theater has been reconfigured as a partial juke joint, with some seats and tables on the stage and some of the actors moving all around the auditorium. Lighting designer Adam Honoré uses some clever color-coding to distinguish between different settings and delineate emotional beats, with blue being used to particularly memorable effect in Lila and Amy’s scenes together.

And the six-person cast certainly give their all. Daunno brings a palpably resigned quality to a “Waking Up Thirty,” in which Dylan laments a sense of his own life going nowhere. Shen similarly nails her big aforementioned “I Know I Wanna Try” number, which Sarnak gives an intriguingly poppy sound compared to the rockabilly stylings elsewhere. Silcott’s genuine sense of regret for abandoning his daughter in “If Your Child” is also momentarily moving. And then, of course, there’s Patten and Jones, both of whom strike genuine romantic sparks in their scenes together. Patten is even more impressive on her own, coming the closest to creating a dimensional characterization in the way she alternates between guardedness and openness. She in particular almost convinces you that The Lonely Few adds up to something more than just a series of warmed-over platitudes.

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The Lonely Few

Closed: June 9, 2024