No one writes comedy quite like Justin Tanner; his writing style and comic sensibility are, quite frankly, almost impossible to describe. Wacky? Demented?  Bizarre? Over the top?  Maybe even brilliant? The answer is all of the above, and never has this been clearer than in the hour of inspired lunacy that is Voice Lessons.

Voice Lessons is the tale of community theater “actress” and would-be songstress Ginny (Laurie Metcalf), and vocal coach Nate (French Stewart), the object of her aim-obsession-devotion.  Ginny (don’t you dare call her Virginia!) arrives for her first lesson dressed in spandex. Her eyelids and fingernails are painted an iridescent aqua, and she is armed with her checkbook and demo CD.  “You can hear the potential!,” she boasts.  “You can hear that I’m talented.” 

The justifiably skeptical Nate informs Ginny that he’s not taking any new students, but the future star is not taking “No!” for an answer. Since her apparently well-to-do dad just recently passed on (from “that Reagan thing,” but not Alzheimer’s), Ginny offers to double, no, make that triple Nate’s salary.  And if money isn’t enough to make him change his mind, then maybe threats will.  “Don’t you dare say ‘No’ to me!” orders Ginny, and proceeds to plop herself down in Nate’s chair and open her checkbook. What’s a vocal coach in need of dough to do but say ‘Yes,’ and as soon as Ginny can shout “TV here I come,” he’s got himself a new student.

When Nate suggests that they begin their first lesson with scales, Ginny promptly informs him that she doesn’t warm up. It’s bad for her voice, or at least that’s what “some magazine with a medical kind of name” said.  All right, how about some breathing exercises?  Well, that at least is something Ginny is willing to try, but when the requested “low hum” comes out a guttural growl which “tickles” her “hoo-hoo,” she promptly says “no-no” to that.  Well then, how about singing one note quietly?  Sure thing, says Ginny, then belts the note out at maximum volume. When Nate expresses his frustration, Ginny (whose middle initial could be V for Volatile) screams out “I DON’T WANT TO DO IT!  STOP PUSHING ME!!” and the next thing you know, she’s found a spot in front of the window to lie down and hide.

In case you’re wondering who on earth ever told this woman she could sing, the answer is—her previous vocal coach, Darla Pounce.  Pounce also taught her the hand gestures for “I Cain’t Say No,” which Ginny demonstrates while singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic at six-times normal speed. Perhaps Darla also told Ginny that a great way to practice a song like “Tears From A Stone” would be to stick a pair of earphones in her ears and sing along with Seal. Or could this advice have come from Sharon Gless?  It was, after all the Cagney And Lacey star herself who gave Ginny the furry blue jacket she’s wearing today, the thought of which sends Ginny on a trip down memory lane, which includes her seventeen abortions—or so she claims. Nate calls her on her out-and-out lies, but to no avail. “It’s POETIC LICENSE!” insists Ginny. “I sometimes lean towards embellishment,” she adds by way of explanation.

When repo men arrive at Nate’s door to take away his piano, the vocal coach is forced to admit to some embarrassing financial difficulties, prompting Ginny to write another check. “I’m here for you,” she reassures Nate.  “I know that sounds fake. But now I own you. Only kidding.” Or is she?

The above is just a taste of Voice Lessons’ early scenes, those which take place before the arrival of Nate’s pint-sized plus-sized fiancée Sheryl Vasquez (Maile Flanagan), who’s none too happy to find her honey with another woman, especially one who pronounces her last name with an audible “u” between the “q” and the “e.”

Voice Lessons could easily fall on its manic ass without Metcalf and Stewart, both of whose performances are absolutely rooted in reality.

Three-time Emmy winner Metcalf is probably still best remembered for her ten seasons on Roseanne, but she is also the same virtuoso actor who won two Ovation awards–for her devastating work in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Jane Anderson’s The Quality Of Life. Metcalf, who has been a major force in Chicago theater, has also starred in four previous Justin Tanner plays, and her whirlwind of a performance here is proof as to why Tanner keeps writing for her. As wild and outrageous and over-the-top as Ginny can be, Metcalf somehow manages to keep her believable.  She listens, she reacts, she doesn’t miss a beat.  Her moods can turn on a dime. She is a force of nature.  She is downright brilliant.

Stewart too is a TV name whose five seasons on Third Rock From The Sun and stage performances like the title role in The Nerd have brought him renown for his humorously twisted, over-the-top persona.  Thus, it comes as quite a surprise to see his restrained, subtle, and even touching work here as a man whose life is not running nearly as smoothly as it initially appears to be.  His embarrassment at being exposed as a man deeply in debt is palpable, and his very real performance keeps the show firmly grounded.

Flanagan is, well, Flanagan, that is to say, the same wild and wacky fireball of energy she’s been in other Tanner plays and of course in Bob’s Holiday Office Party. There’s no one quite like her. 

Tanner has chosen as his co-director the versatile Bart DeLorenzo, whose skills as a director are eclectic indeed, from the swashbuckling adventure of Shipwrecked! to the subtle ironies of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Here, he proves himself equally adept at comedy, and the believability of Voice Lessons, despite its very weird protagonist, is certainly due in large measure to DeLorenzo’s contributions.

Gary Guidinger’s set nicely depicts Nate’s somewhat tacky living room with its Persian throw rugs, flowered wallpaper, and red velvet curtains, and his lighting is just right. Kristian Hoffman’s sound design cleverly intersperses music from Broadway musicals like Phantom and West Side Story between scenes. No one is credited for Ginny’s outfits, each more bizarre than the one before, or for Stewart’s moth eaten sweater vest, but they’re terrific choices.

Normally for me, an hour running time is insufficient for an evening at the theater, but one hour of Voice Lessons goes a long way (that is to say in a very good way)—and it’s hard to imagine Metcalf maintaining her level of high energy intensity much longer, nor perhaps could the audience stand laughing any more than they already have. Voice Lessons is an outrageously satisfying hour of nonstop laughter and insanity.

Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 19, 2009
                                                         Photos: Ed Krieger

Comments are closed.