When Percy Sledge died recently, there was an obituary tribute to him on NPR.
It started with the announcement that he had died, and you knew exactly what was going to happen in this story and where it was going: You’d get some details, and it would end with "When a Man Loves a Woman," the iconic ballad Sledge sang. And while that’s just what happened, it didn’t lessen the joy of hearing that song at all.
That story is kind of what it was like seeing "Little by Little," the musical that opened at In Tandem Theatre Company Friday night.
It’s a story about three friends, two women and one man. Friends since childhood. Love between two of them, then none of them, then two others.
You can see where this story is going from miles away.
But like Sledge and his song, the obvious, even trite, nature of the play doesn’t matter one single bit because of the delightful production, highlighted by three young actor/singers who give breath to this play and make it fly.
The characters in this play are Man (Michael T. Black), Woman #1(Jenna Vik) and Woman #2 (Rachael Zientek).
The three are friends in childhood. As they grow older and hormones begin to intrude, Man and #1 start to flirt, date and become a couple. All the while #2 harbors a love for Man that remains a secret.
Throughout the growth of their relationship, #2 covers for and counsels both of her friends, never letting on how she really feels. And she suffers her secret with a troubled willingness.
The Man and #1 grow tight but then they have to be apart on an important evening, and they ask #2 to fill in and pretend to be #1. See what’s coming?
There’s a kiss and an awakening by both Man and #2. When #1 comes back, the kiss becomes the thing that drives all three of them apart and into lives and individuals. But, and we knew this would happen, in the end friendship wins out, and the three of them walk off holding hands together.
There is a clear moral to this play. Love is wonderful, but in its many manifestations, it can place a strain on even the strongest friendships. In the end, however, the love and respect of friendship trumps the vagaries of a love affair, every time.
This play breaks no ground nor does it stun you with surprise.
What this production does, however, is wrap you in a cloud of good feeling with three delightful performances, along with a great set by Steve Barnes, wonderful lighting by Doug Vance and the outstanding direction of Chris Flieller.
Black, Vik and Zientek all have nice voices, and they know how to sing a song that moves a story along. There is no dialogue in this show, just songs – some simple and some difficult, but all performed with heart and soul by the actors.
Black is just the kind of handsome young man who could easily find himself in the middle of this threesome. He sings well and lets the audience know that, while he pretends to be in control, he is beset by doubts about where he’s headed in life and who he is headed there with.
Vik is the perfectly sultry hot chick on campus. Having a boyfriend is like collecting trinkets for her. She finds a security in the relationship that might otherwise be missing in her life. Vik has a clear and soaring voice and can be angry or plaintive with nary a misstep in between.
Zientek has cemented her spot in my "Favorite Acting Sisters in Milwaukee." She is the younger sister of Sara, the actor who is climbing the stairs of acting success in Wisconsin.
Rachael is a stunning surprise. She makes you want to give her a hug as she suffers her hopes and dreams. She is funny and pathetic and warm and angry and just about every kind of emotion the human palate has. Her voice is a magnificently evocative, and she is in no need of dialogue to move a story along. There is a clarity to her acting with song that is striking. Give her some lines of dialogue, and she could well be dangerous.
This show is a perfect example of how very much fun live theater can be. There’s no need to worry if you’ll get it. Everyone gets it. This one is just to be enjoyed.
"Little by Little" runs through May 24 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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