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by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Michael John LaChiusa ( book, music & lyrics ). At: Kokandy Productions, Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150;; $33-$38. Runs through: Aug. 20

Jazz aficionados rejoice: Little Fish is your kinda' show! It's not the story but the singing and swinging that sell this one, as well as Michael John LaChiusa's varied top-drawer score. His vocal lines often call for close harmonies or tricky, scale-soaring riffs reminiscent of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, while the tight band ( keyboards, reeds, guitar, bass and percussion ) pumps out elegant sax, clarinet, bass clarinet and rhythm lines ( Kory Danielson, music director ).

Set in contemporary New York City, Little Fish centers on Charlotte ( Nicole Laurenzi ), 30-ish and alone, whose life was shaped 10 years earlier by a college boyfriend ( Jeff Meyer ) who repeatedly pointed out her shortcomings. She's had professional success as a writer, yet still sees/hears the former beau saying "you can't" whenever she faces a challenge, causing her to limit her own life and live vicariously through her adventurous friends Marco ( Adam Fane ) and Kathy ( Aja Wiltshire ).

When Charlotte gives up smoking ( a crutch taken up after she left the bf ), Marco and Kathy try to guide her back to health—not just physically—through running and swimming ( hence, the title ). About 75 minutes into this 85-minute show, Charlotte realizes she's competent and capable, and not only can quit smoking but also send her negativity packing. By that point, the audience has been saying "Wake up, girlfriend!" for an hour. The problem is that there isn't a central event, crisis or character to spark her epiphany. It seems as if LaChiusa has decided Charlotte must change in order to end the show swiftly ( which it does ) rather than through dramatic events. Charlotte's conflict is entirely within herself, which doesn't make for a particularly effective story.

But the through-scored music is wonderful, LaChiusa's lyrics are sharp, and the performances are uniformly strong and appealing. Singing jazz requires voice and technique which are different from standard Broadway belt or power ballads or song-and-dance, and certainly different from most pop/rock. This cast has it mastered, from Laurenzi's charming performance on down. While each performer has effective solo moments, I must single out Carl Herzog as Charlotte's slimy boss for his smooth Sinatra-like come-on, "You See It All the Time." The ensemble is completed by Kyrie Courter, Teressa LaGamba and Darren Patin ( understudy at the performance I saw ).

Arnel Sancianco's scenic design is simple yet has an air of sophistication: two raised rectangular platforms and four rectangular hanging panels—all in basic black—suggest the shapes, walls and windows of big city buildings and locations as Alexander Ridgers' fluid area lighting seems to bring out textures in the panels. Alison Hendrix is the effective director, with choreography ( musical movement rather than dance ) by Kasey Alfonso. Little Fish is a jazz cantata you'll groove to.

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