Little Town Blues
nytheatre.com review by Mary Beth Smith
July 28, 2011
Little Town Blues is a musical adaptation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters set in modern day Iowa. Split between two schools—an elite boarding school and a military school—it focuses on the lives of teenagers aching to grow up and move on, either to new lives or new loves. While the idea of a modern adaptation of The Three Sisters is compelling, this production fails to capture the true desperation and, of course, humor of its original source.
The show centers around the friendships of Olivia, Molly, and Christina, three girls attending Deforest-Martin Prep in Iowa. As the play progresses we learn the three girls have been there for eleven years and rarely if ever see their parents. Christina and Olivia dream of moving to New York and leaving Iowa and all that is associated with it. Engaged before graduating high school, Molly is lost in melancholy and is generally immobile. Various characters come in and out of the women’s lives, but as an audience we are following their story more so than any other.
The second half of Little Town Blues is where it begins to gain some footing. The characters are more grounded and fleshed out and the actors begin to really emotionally invest in the situation. The character of Natalie, played by Nicole Ventura, owns the room whenever she enters. While the character itself needs some work, Ventura does a superb job capturing Natalie’s manipulative nature. And while the rest of the production could benefit from some rewrites and restaging, the final scene between Olivia, Molly, and Christina is truly heartbreaking. This is one of the moments when everything in the production is working together in pure synchronicity to capture the truly devastating events that happen to everyone in the show. Little Town Blues begins in a light-hearted way so the ending juxtaposes the beginning perfectly.
Written by Rachel Buethe, who also plays Molly, and James Presson, who serves as the director, Little Town Blues has all of the pieces in place of The Three Sisters but with very little urgency built in to the show. Filled to the brim with exposition this play tends to feel like a long slog of monologues as one by one the 13 characters tell us their stories and one by one they sing a solo in the same position on stage every single song. It seems as though the playwrights are trying to capture Chekhov’s writing style, rather than understanding the purpose behind that style and adapting it with that in mind. Moreover this production is filled with too many songs that originate without any real purpose. The emotional reality is never so great that any character needs to sing, nor do the arrangements themselves lend anything to the over all story of the show. Cutting at least a third of the musical numbers, minimizing the speeches, and giving the three girls, specifically Olivia and Christina, more urgency to their background stories would make this show stronger in its overall conceit.
While an intrepid experiment, Little Town Blues has a lot of kinks to work through before being staged again. The show itself has great potential, but in the end I felt like I was watching the first draft of the play rather than the final product.