Don’t think “Little by Little,” the show now playing three weekend performances at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet (luscious dessert) Theater, is a small play because it has only three characters. Actually, it is not a play because, however dramatic, it has no dialogue. It tells its story completely in song. The music is by Brad Ross, the lyrics by Ellen Greenfield and Hal Hockady, the story by Annette Jolles, with Ellen Greenfield contributing.
The able singer-actors are Heather Diaforii, Tim Walton, and Esther Cohen, all Off-Broadstreet veterans. All are in fine voice and always convincing. The characters they play, as they let you know, are three typical people. What happens to them could happen to anyone. The tale they tell in clever, rhyming lyrics is about love (sexual and emotional) and the permutations of love, about friendship, and betrayal, about commitment or lack of it, about doubt and no doubt. And yes, about female stupidity. (Only a young woman like Heather could be so stupid.)
That leads to the betrayal that provides the show’s twist. The characters let you know that no one of the three is blameless as they sing of the “mess we made of friendship and love.” Some songs are sung alone; some are duets. Most are sung by all three. All are fairly short. Most are about emotions. The show is never static.
The play begins when the three are in high school and complaining about homework, follows them as they grow up “little by little” and are employed, matching attache cases in hand. Now they need smiles and smarts. “Little by little” they open the door, learning “how much we don’t know about life.” Although the show makes its repeated points that life happens, “little by little,” some events happen here with a sudden, rupturing, life-altering wallop.
The first act is standard fare, straightforward and predictable in its advance toward love and premarital sex. The show turns in the second act and becomes emotionally involving (at least for this critic). The characters’ emotional conflicts are well detailed. The songs are varied, angry, guilt-ridden, even amusing. The funniest song in the show is “The Schmooze” when Tim and the woman with him, while getting drunk, try to say flattering, ingratiating things to an important couple, the man of whom, Tim warns his companion, will decide his career and “my whole life.” Another amusing number is when Heather, in a turnabout, sings that she has taken up golf and the large, heavy Tim reveals he is now doing macrame.
While the play might borrow an old title, “The Triumph of Love,” that would be wrong. Whose love? you’d ask. Love here may be joyous, but it is also full of uncertainty, hurt and rejection, guilt, blame and self-blame, anger and sadness. With love and its sexual glue having intruded, the characters’ friendship, however revived, will never be the same. Wasn’t it false to begin with, you might wonder, when two women love the same man? Or is it that a love, once concealed, is now revealed? With the characters still young, apparently in their 20s, the entertaining songs finish on an optimistic note: “Life is a never-ending story.” The mostly older audience applauds heartily.
Director Robert Thick has designed this production with a simple tri-part set, each one with pictures and peg boards hung with clothes, each like the other. Ann Raymond did the costumes. All three characters change jackets or shirts on stage, the clothes alike, and colors always matching (until the women wear long dresses at the end). Kenneth P. Howard accompanies on the piano.
The show evolved, well, little by little. First it started at the York Theater in 1991 as a staged concert, the music by Ross. Jolles joined the project and it became part of two different workshops. Many of the original songs were dropped and others created to follow the story Jolles created. The lyrics now were by Hackady and Greenfield. Still a cabaret production, the show played in Greenwich Village in 1995; by 1996 it had its regional premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, where it had rave reviews. It had its off-Broadway premiere in 1999. In 2004 it played in London.
One of the songs, reprised in the second act, is “Popcorn.” Tim has a big tub of it at the movies and shares the popcorn with one, then both, of the women. Popcorn comes to the audience, as well, as the waiters serve each table a bowl.
Little By Little, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. To March 19. $23.75 and $25.25.