With its immersive, intimate black box setting and live rock instrumentation, The Lonely Few is as much a concert as it is a musical. Commissioned as part of the Geffen Playhouse’s New Play Development Project, Zoe Sarnak (music and lyrics) and Rachel Bonds’ (book) new musical adds a valuable, much-needed entry to the list of musicals centering on lesbian romances.
Tony-winner Lauren Patten takes on a rocker persona with vocals forged in the flames of her Jagged Little Pill run, while Frozen‘s Ciara Renée is recast as a country folk star with a voice as sugary as sweet tea. The show leads the audience from a queer small-town experience in Kentucky to concert venues around the country, with the leads’ intimate sapphic romance beating at its core all along the way.
No Tea, No Shade
The audience is drawn into the world of Lila (Patten) immediately, as the tightly-packed space leaves viewers bathed in the same dingy overhead fluorescents she’s subjected to at her job at the local Save A Lot. Between her out-of-work brother with a substance problem Adam (Joshua Close), and her 3-in-1 supervisor/best friend/boss’s son Dylan (Damon Daunno) stepping in to banter, the claustrophobically rural feel really takes shape.
The energy suddenly spikes with the bombastic introductory number “God of Nowhere” as Lila fires up the titular band: Dylan accompanies on bass, JJ (Helen J Shen) brings the vibes on keyboard, and Paul (Thomas Silcott) keeps it all in time on the drums. Though the volume in the small space causes a good few of the lyrics to drop (an experience throughout the show’s most high-energy numbers), the power and showmanship of the band are electric, almost tempting you out of best behavior theater etiquette and into concert-style participation.
The addition of Amy (Renée) into the scene is palpable, adding flirtation and chemistry that don’t release their hold on the room until intermission. The dedication to telling this slice-of-life interracial lesbian love story is modern, but the beats are all too classic; if there’s one thing musical theater love interests do, it’s slowly walking toward one another while singing and bathed in mood lighting.
Lila spends the show torn between whether to embrace a new life on the road or bury herself under the responsibilities of life at home, a choice only complicated by her immense new feelings. The emotional beats get a bit choppy in the second act as things spiral all the way back down to the Save A Lot stockroom, but the earnest spirit of the show continues to pull the viewer along.
Let’s Have a Moment
Between the stylistic direction and Patten and Renée’s voices, The Lonely Few shines brightest throughout its (mostly diegetic) numbers. The act one closer, “I Know I Wanna Try,” is particularly enthralling; young ingenue JJ takes the stage solo to perform a MUNA-drenched synthy pop number simultaneously paralleled by Lila and Amy’s romance reaching its first gorgeous, hungry, climactic moment.
Though they mostly act as comic relief throughout, Helen J Shen introduces an entirely new energy to the stage with their lead vocal moment. It’s an interesting departure from the majority of the show’s sound, and they steer it with aplomb (and electronic neon theme lighting by Adam Honoré).
The Last Word
Compelling musicals centered on the romance between queer women are shockingly rare. Shows like Crush: the Musical or The Prom spring to mind, along with supporting romances like Maureen and Joanne (RENT) or Alison and Joan (Fun Home). A musical as tender and intimate as The Lonely Few is a welcome addition, especially under the supervision of Patten and Renée.
Even as the show ventures through classic stage tropes, it does so with a heart and an energy too valuable to mind. The casting is tight and well-considered, making as much an interesting band as it does an ensemble. Either way, The Lonely Few could make its way to Broadway or on a Gaga-esque dive bar tour and get audiences on their feet.
The Lonely Few plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles through April 30, 2023.