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Commentary: Does musical ‘The Lonely Few’ pull off the grittiness of touring life? An ex-indie rocker weighs in

Two actors portraying musicians onstage under colored lights.
Damon Daunno, left, and Lauren Patten in “The Lonely Few.”
(Jeff Lorch / Geffen Playhouse)
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When you show up to watch the Geffen Playhouse’s new world-premiere musical, “The Lonely Few,” an usher hands you a package of earplugs at the door.

“It’s a little loud in there,” they warn.

This was my first clue that the show, which is set in a dive bar and centers on the experiences of gigging independent rockers, intended to take care of me as an audience member in a way that indie music never has. Because when you show up at a real dive bar to see a real indie band, nobody hands you earplugs, and the person at the door taking your money could not care less if your ears bleed once you’re inside.

I spent my 20s and early 30s gigging and touring in indie rock bands, so I know what I’m talking about. It’s why I was particularly keen on seeing “The Lonely Few.” Aside from Darren Criss’ electrifying performance in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” I have never seen the sweat and grit of rock ’n’ roll represented effectively onstage. I was curious if “The Lonely Few” would pull it off, or whether I would have to sit awkwardly through a show that lacked authenticity.

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What I discovered — to my great joy — is a show that offers a solid indie-rock vibe with all the benefits of a theatergoing experience.

“The Lonely Few,” with a book by Rachel Bonds and music and lyrics by Zoe Sarnak, was commissioned as part of the Geffen’s New Play Development program. New plays are notoriously hard to market and sell, so programs like this are important in order to give playwrights a supportive place to experiment with form, which Bonds and Sarnak undoubtedly did.

A man and a woman, seated onstage, sing into microphones
Ciara Renée, left, and Thomas Silcott in “The Lonely Few.”
(Jeff Lorch / Geffen Playhouse)

One of the most novel aspects of the musical is its use of space through its set, which was designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer to be a Kentucky dive bar and music venue called Paul’s Juke Joint.

Audience members are invited to carry their cocktails (with a lid — another not-a-dive-bar touch) into the bar itself for a fully immersive theater experience. The center of the room is populated with tables and mismatched chairs, and a more traditional yet still funky area behind features rows of seating, the front portion of which is outfitted with thrift-store couches and armchairs.

The Geffen Playhouse production crew transforms the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater into Paul’s Juke Joint.

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Onlookers also sit at the long bar on the right side of the venue/theater. The bar is covered with stickers of bands — the Slits, Sonic Youth — and Fender. The stickers add to the feel of a real bar, although they would’ve been more believable if they featured bands nobody has ever heard of. In the thankless world of touring America as a no-name band — getting paid in drink tickets, sleeping on unsanitary couches in the dirty apartment of someone you met late-night at the bar, not showering for days on end, sometimes playing to an empty room after driving for 10 hours — slapping your sticker on the underside of a bar is sometimes the best part of your day.

The ramshackle furniture is just right, though, and in an interview with my colleague Ashley Lee, Wickersheimer mentioned that she grew up in a college town in Illinois and based her choices on the community-centered music venues where she used to hang out.

“Some of it has been pulled off the street because someone was tossing it out, or someone moved,” she explained of the hodgepodge look of the furnishings.

Wickersheimer also covered the walls of Paul’s Juke Joint with raw plywood, which reminded me of a now-shuttered indie rock club on the edge of Historic Filipinotown called the Bootleg. I later learned from Wickersheimer’s interview that she actually used the Bootleg as a model for her design.

The world premiere of ‘The Lonely Few’ at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse stars Tony winner Lauren Patten and an astonishing Ciara Renée.

March 19, 2023

The stage at Paul’s is set into the far corner of the room — a bit like the stage at the Viper Room, only much more spacious. And indie rockers will find comfort in the small red velvet curtain that serves as the performance backdrop.

Like a real indie music venue, a single sound person sits in a small booth toward the back of the room. Unlike said indie bar? That sound person will smile at you and has not just smoked a joint in the parking lot. Another happy note about Paul’s Juke Joint: Patrons don’t get a whiff of the urinal cake in the men’s room every time the bathroom door swings open.

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The eponymous band everyone has come to see in “The Lonely Few” is a scrappy four-piece fronted by an unsure but charismatic singer-guitarist named Lila, played by Tony winner Lauren Patten. A floppy-haired bassist named Dylan (Damon Daunno), a vivacious, over-eager young keyboardist named JJ (Helen J. Shen) and a seasoned drummer in the form of the bar’s namesake, Paul (Thomas Silcott), complete the ragtag group.

Daunno does an expert disaffected indie head nod and foot bounce while he plays, and Shen is thoroughly convincing on the keys with her hair swishes and tentative backing vocals. (There is also a guitar tech who makes an appearance wearing a navy T-shirt featuring a wolf backed by a full moon that is fully legit.) The band has the good fortune of playing to an exuberant audience every night — another benefit of the bar being a theater. Even the most popular local band playing a residency at a neighborhood dive has to suffer through the stony silence of an uninterested audience or the rowdy heckling of the resident drunk.

“The Lonely Few” is a startlingly accurate depiction of the kind of talented, earnest band that should make it big — or at least make a living — but often doesn’t. The band gets a shot at touring with a much more popular artist, soulful Nashville singer-songwriter Amy (Ciara Renée). Changes in lighting on the Paul’s Juke Joint stage signify different bars and towns — and the musical becomes a tender love story between Lila and Amy.

As for the audience: We get to sit through a rock show in a comfortably low-key dive bar in cozy seats without being jostled around by errant dancers with no sense of personal space. We can pop in our gratis earplugs when the music gets too loud, and we can be sure of a clean toilet if we need it. If only every indie gig were this good.

Ashley Lee contributed to this report.

‘The Lonely Few’

Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Check for schedule changes.) Ends April 30.

Tickets: Start at $59

Info: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (with one intermission)

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