Review: ‘Little Voice’ Is a Twee Musical Fairy Tale

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If you’re particularly hungry to escape current realities, and have a susceptibility to industrial-strength sentimentality wrapped in tastefully autumnal lighting, then “Little Voice” on Apple TV+ might appeal to you. A half-hour dramedy premiering Friday about an aspiring singer-songwriter who tends bar, teaches music and walks dogs on the suspiciously clean streets of New York, it’s coronavirus-free.

Created by the musician Sara Bareilles and the filmmaker Jessie Nelson, the team behind the Broadway musical “Waitress,” the series espouses a democratic ideal: Anyone can find and cultivate her own little voice, conquer her stage fright, get up before an audience and (in a future season, anyway) become a star.

It takes place, however, in the Kingdom of Twee. Bess (Brittany O’Grady), the confidence-impaired heroine, navigates the gig economy in a cloud of adorable pooches and adorable students (They come in two varieties, very young and very old). She works on her songs in a storage unit that looks like an Anthropologie-appointed seraglio, next door to the unit where handsome but obnoxious Ethan (Sean Teale) is editing his film about dancing grandparents. It’s as if WeWork has spun off WeMeetCute.

And there’s more. The South Asian roommate (Shalini Bathina) who plays guitar in an all-female mariachi band. The brother (Kevin Valdez) who lives in a group home for young men on the spectrum and whose adorable obsession is Broadway musicals. (Apparently it’s OK, in the name of representation, to use a bunch of guys with autism as a comic chorus. That said, they’re reasonably funny.) The first word Ethan makes when he and Bess play Scrabble: songbird. Bingo.

“Little Voice” is not, on the surface, anything like “Friends,” but it weds the mechanics of that kind of glib New York sitcom with the grittier, but still fanciful, aesthetic of John Carney’s musical films like “Once” — dressing up the former, but not capturing much of the energy or the spirit of the latter. In the show’s vision of the city, musical talent is everywhere, and wherever Bess goes, people are busking. Sidewalk? Guy playing a grand piano. Central Park? Guy drumming on plastic pails. Subway platform? Old guys singing R&B.

In fairness, this fairy-tale ambience is intrinsic to the show, and you may find it charming in its own right. But the story elements Bareilles and Nelson provide over the nine-episode season (three will be available Friday) don’t have enough originality or energy to get you sufficiently invested in the fantasy. (Another of the show’s executive producers is J.J. Abrams, whose “Felicity” looks dark by comparison.)

There’s a tepid rom-com triangle among Bess, the caustic Ethan and an earnest, supportive musician, Samuel (played with abashed charm by Colton Ryan). There are the complications supplied by Bess’s semi-guardianship of her sibling (an increasingly common trope, also seen this season in “Stumptown” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay”). Most familiar is the meddling-Indian-parents routine involving the roommate, an already timeworn device that’s enlivened by the casting of Sakina Jaffrey as the mother.

And Bess herself, despite an appealing, self-effacing performance by O’Grady, is more of a commercial jingle than a soulful ballad. As with the characters in Carney’s films, we’re meant to see that she’s the real thing and to take a rooting interest in her overcoming her self-imposed barriers to success. But the insecurities and familial dynamics she deals with aren’t compelling enough to attach us to her. (And Bareilles’s anodyne, mushy tunes don’t do the trick on their own.)

One thing that distinguishes “Little Voice” from other musical theater-meets-karaoke shows of its type is that it acknowledges its own crowd-pleasing tendencies. Samuel gently suggests adding a backbeat to Bess’s music to cut against its treacly qualities, and an overt nostalgia for vinyl records and classic rock and soul permeates the series; Bess’s YouTube viewing runs toward old interviews with Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell.

The effect isn’t to undercut the ambient sentimentality, though, but to highlight it. Bess may sound embarrassed when she says, “My stuff seems earnest,” but “Little Voice” isn’t making any apologies.



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