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“The Lonely Few” reviewed

Over in a corner of the bar is an untouched piano, lurking like a gun in Chekhov. When someone at last sits down to play it, watch out. That’s the cue for one of the scariest human emotions: hope.

The characters in The Lonely Few are also looking for a way to rip away their isolation through song, though their predicament is more about class and politics than a pandemic. In Zoe Sarnak’s musical, which has a book by Rachel Bonds, Lila (Lauren Patten, who you may remember belting “You Oughta Know” in Jagged Little Pill) is a young lesbian woman fronting a rock band in a small Kentucky town. She’s writing about dead-end dreams, the emotion expressed through her lyrics — “night by night, we sing a prayer to the God of Nowhere,” goes the opening number, “night by night, we crawl inside the song” — but more pressingly by the searing yawp of Patten’s voice when she lays into a big note. Lila has something in her that’s burning her up, too big for her own context. (It’s also too big, maybe, for the small space of MCC Theater; earplugs are offered at the door.)

 

Lauren Patten and Taylor Iman Jones in ‘The Lonely Few.’

Lauren Patten and Taylor Iman Jones in The Lonely Few. Photo: Joan Marcus

While Sarnak’s music — awash with yearning that drowns out its less precise imagery — and this cast’s performances provide The Lonely Few with rock-operatic charge, the musical itself gets sluggish, and that’s largely because Bonds’s book is really predictable. One day, a star on tour named Amy (Taylor Iman Jones, with a typhoon of a voice of her own; she’s a graduate of Six) ends up at Lila’s bar. They talk shop and, of course, flirt. Soon Lila and her bandmates (including a peppily naïve Helen J. Shen and a surprisingly dweeby Damon Daunno) are headed out on tour with Amy, leaving her troubled brother Adam (Peter Mark Kendall) behind. Lila — big surprise — ends up torn between her obligations to her family and her rock-star dreams.

 

These generic tropes can be satisfying if they’re filled in with human detail, but The Lonely Few has only amped-up volume. Nearly every exchange between Lila and Amy is about small-town prejudices (“and you know … I’m black, I’m queer, it’s the South,” goes one of Amy’s lines), to the extent that you wonder if they ever talk about anything else. Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott’s direction, similarly rote and presentational, leaves the actors at sea trying to get beyond generic character sketches, and sometimes they seem as if they are just reading statistics about rural life. (Thomas Silcott, as a paternal figure to both Lila and Amy, fares the best.) I kept thinking about the far more complex vision of Middle American dreaming seen in Bridget Everett’s Somebody Somewhere or the eccentric queer madness of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, to which Saynak’s music owes a debt. In those stories, comfort and invention overlap simultaneously with oppression and conformity; it’s possible for one small town to contain many things at once. The Lonely Few doesn’t look so closely. There isn’t much space to vary your dynamics when the sound is blown out.

There’s a great musical somewhere in Rachel Bonds and Zoe Sarnak’s The Lonely Few. But we’re seeing—and hearing—only glimmers of it onstage at MCC Theater.