The next big superstar in music is a fusion of Alessia Cara, Carole King and Betty White: That’s how the protagonist, Bess King, describes herself in Little Voice, a musical drama that premiered Friday on Apple TV+.
It’s a fitting characterization for Bess, portrayed by Brittany O’Grady (Star) as a fresh-faced, 20-something with songwriting chops and a (mostly) charming, wide-eyed innocence. O’Grady’s vocal gifts are bolstered by the music, written by Grammy-nominated hitmaker Sara Bareilles, who executive-produced the show with her Waitress collaborator Jessie Nelson, J.J. Abrams and Ben Stephenson (Westworld).
The show is not a retelling of Bareilles’ life; the singer-songwriter got her start in Los Angeles, while Bess is making her way in New York, holding down jobs as a dog-walker, bartender, music teacher and more. We see her work to overcome self-doubt and find her identity as an artist and young woman. We also get a front-row seat into her songwriting process; each episode is centered on a new composition (and I will gladly purchase the inevitable soundtrack album).
The premiere opens with Bess struggling to complete a song and stumbling across an inevitable love interest, Ethan (Sean Teale, Reign). The two have a meet-cute in their, er, storage units, but the premiere doesn’t give us a lot about Ethan’s backstory or aspirations, other than that he has an interest in filming older dancers. No matter; Bess is smitten, and confides in him about bombing onstage — a one-time, though epic, event that left her resigned to singing cover songs.
During the rest of the episode, we meet the other colorful characters in Bess’s life: her disabled brother, Louie (Kevin Valdez), who has a passion for all things Broadway; her best friend, Prisha (Shalini Bathina, Raven’s Home), whose family is pressuring her to have an arranged marriage; and her co-worker, Benny (Phillip Johnson Richardson, The Other Two), a lovable waiter with five online degrees. It’s interesting that the writers chose to make Prisha a musician, as well; there could be some tension/competition between the friends down the road, but there’s no sign of it right now.
A positive note: The cast is refreshingly diverse; people of color are placed in prominent roles and Louie’s world is given breadth beyond his disability. We also see a variety of street performers against the vibrant, New York backdrop, clearly an inspiration for Bess’s writing.
Later in the episode, Bess has another opportunity to perform her own songs. A musical act falls through at the bar where she works, and she volunteers to take the stage. Here, I expected the writers to make her triumphant, but she bombs again. To make matters worse, Ethan is in the audience and witnesses the fumble — with his girlfriend. But we briefly meet a friendly — and handsome — guitarist, Samuel (Colton Ryan, Homeland), who will probably shake things up later.
Dejected, Bess goes to see her supportive and tough-loving father, (Tony winner Chuck Cooper), who is busking with a doo-wop group. “Everybody knows what it feels like not to be who you want to be yet,” he says, while encouraging her to keep going. The subtext is that his own singing career has fizzled out.
At the end of the episode, Bess returns to her notebook and piano and finishes her song; it is her writing that will ultimately define the journey ahead. The question, dear viewers, is whether you’ll stick around to see where it takes her.
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