The Story of My Life: Havok Theatre, 3/18/10

24 03 2010

One of the first shows I saw upon moving to Los Angeles was Havok Theatre Company’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. With impressive design, vibrant performances, and particularly memorable choreography, this production inspired a paper for my “identity and identifications” class in fall 2009. Havok’s high production values continue in their latest venture: the LA premiere of The Story of My Life, with book by Brian Hill, music and lyrics by Neil Bartram.

The Story of My Life is one of those legendary Broadway flops, closing only 5 performances after its opening in February 2009.  Yet it is more than clear why this show should have never opened on Broadway, and the reason has little to do with its artistic merit.  The Story of My Life is a beautiful, intimate musical – and requires an accordingly intimate space, not a cavernous Broadway theater.  At age 35, famous writer Thomas Weaver reflects on his relationship with childhood friend Alvin Kelby; a spectral Alvin animates his memories as Tom struggles to write a fitting eulogy for this friend, with whom he gradually lost touch over the years.

The Lillian Theatre’s 99-seat space provides an ideal setting for this emotional two-person drama, and the audience’s own intimacy last Thursday night certainly contributed to the evening’s impact.  I had come with three undergrad theater friends; we ran into an MFA acting friend and several of his friends from the touring cast of Mamma Mia!; and somehow over the course of the evening, I had chatted – however briefly – with nearly everyone in the audience and a few company members, as well.  One of the gifts of the small, but tight-knit, LA theater community!

Admittedly, The Story of My Life took some time to draw me in.  The compositional style is psuedo-Sondheim – but with more sentiment, less biting wit.  Having just seen Merrily We Roll Along at the Chance, I noticed that the persistent question “How did you get to be here?” finds its own echoing counterpart in this musical, along with the mantra “Write what you know, Tom.”  (If this show had an ensemble, these phrases would undoubtedly be developed into concept musical framing devices.)  In the extended narrative songs and chamber musical structure, Story of My Life also echoes Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.  Like Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days, this piece feels more like a song cycle than a musical in the end.  Transitions between songs are sometimes weak, particularly towards the beginning of the show. Simply pick up a book from the pristine white bookshelves, the talented three-piece orchestra will strike a familiar chord, lighting will change, and the characters will access a musical memory inside!  Brian Hill could have varied these transitions for a considerably stronger book.

Yet by “1876,” a book report that Thomas gives in middle school, this musical began to captivate me. Why this particular number?  I’m not quite sure.  Perhaps it drew me back to my own middle school memories of finding a new world in the pages of a book.  Certainly the performance of this number captured my attention.  In another striking comparison to Merrily, the actors in The Story of My Life have to jump among ages; fortunately, Townsend and Borden perform these transitions much more effectively than the cast of Merrily, which seemed rather static across the course of the show.  Thomas’s (Townsend) mature author persona is interspliced with memories of himself as an awkward middle schooler, a cool high school teen, and an increasingly distanced college boy.  Borden similarly accesses a playful, rambunctious Alvin who gradually must learn responsibility when his father passes away, leaving him the bookstore.  In addition to such strong acting and vocals (unmic’ed, if I remember correctly, which contributes to the production’s intimacy), Nick DeGruccio’s direction clarifies the transitions from present day to memory and back again.

Despite the sometimes overly-saccharine sentimentality of The Story of My Life, this production offers a wonderfully intimate, emotionally rewarding adventure – mixed with Capra and Twain, Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown, and bits and pieces from each of our own lives.  By the end of the evening, I can promise you will have dipped into your own memories – and hopefully feel the nudge to revive and cherish your own friendships just a little more.

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