Even though it was years ago, Denise Whelan still recalls her enthusiasm when she saw the film version of the play titled The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is a little gem!’ I loved it!” said the Ambler actress.
That “little gem” premiered in London in 1992, then two years later, went on Broadway. It’s won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy. The film version was released in 1998 and earned an Oscar nomination.
Now the Walnut Street Theatre is giving the play new life as part of its Independence Studio on 3 season. This performance space is much smaller than the downstairs main stage, and the plays presented here are especially suited to this intimate space.
Whelan plays the role of the mother of Little Voice. She was delighted to land this role. Little Voice, played by Ellie Mooney, is a shy girl who loves to sing and spends time in her room, singing along to her late father’s record collection and impersonating his favorite singers. While Little Voice is shy and reclusive, her mother is anything but.
“She says whatever’s on her mind, without regard to whether it hurts anyone,” said Whelan of her character. “She does what she wants to make herself feel good.”
Directing the cast is Dan Olmstead, who’s been in numerous Walnut productions — as an actor. This play marks his debut as director.
”He’s wonderful,” said Whelan. “Because he’s an actor, he speaks ‘actor’s language.’ He knows how to direct the cast to get what he needs.”
Of the cast of six, Whelan has worked previously with all but one.
“Dan assembled a cast that is really right for the roles, and they’re great to work with,” said Whelan.
She confesses that she was somewhat intimidated when she first read the script.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God! I’m on every single page!’ ”
Indeed, during the two-act play, she’s in almost every scene. Some of these take place in a gritty nightclub, where Whelan is seated on a bar stool, becoming intoxicated.
“In some scenes, she talks nonstop and doesn’t realize what she’s saying or who she’s hurting. And in some scenes, she’s shouting or screaming,” said the actress.
Whelan has enjoyed performing in many Walnut Main Stage productions, often in musicals where she’s belted out show-stopping solos. Her first leading role at the Walnut was as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. Other favorite Walnut roles include Velma in Hairspray, Molly Molloy in Windy City and Yente in Fiddler on the Roof and Jean in Good People last season.
Whelan earned a Barrymore nomination for her role as the beggar woman in the Arden Theatre Company production of Sweeney Todd and was also nominated for a BroadwayWorld.com award for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Norma Desmond in the Fulton Theatre production of Sunset Boulevard.
Always eager to test herself, Whelan is pleased to take on her newest role as the mother in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.
“It’s a very challenging role,” she said. “It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone, which is always good.” ••
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice opens this Thursday, March 27, and continues through April 13. Tickets ($30-$40) by phone at 215-574-3550 or online at www.WalnutStreetTheatreorg or Ticketmaster.