Updated: May 2
It’s “a memory play about two wonderfully strange kids.”
In a beautiful tribute to true friendship, Chance Theater kicked off their 23rd Anniversary Season last Friday evening with an Orange County premiere of Neil Bertram and Brian Hill’s 2006 musical, “The Story of My Life.” The musical is directed by Matthew McCray (“The Other Place”), with music direction by Robyn Manion (“Ragtime”), and will have scheduled virtual performances from April 30th - June 6th, 2021.
The production team for “The Story of My Life” also includes Lighting Designer Masako Tobaru, Costume Designer Erika C. Miller, Sound Designer/Music Editor Ryan Brodkin, Video Editor James Tran, Prop Manager Bebe Herrera, and Stage Manager Nicole Schlitt. The production stars Dillon Klena (“Parade”) as Thomas and Wyn Moreno (“Ragtime”) as Alvin.
This Drama Desk Award-nominated musical is a soaring tribute to the power of friendship and the people who change our lives forever. It’s a profoundly funny and deeply moving glimpse between lifelong best friends, Thomas and Alvin. As time tests the bonds of consanguinity, best-selling author Thomas calls on the only resource he has — his stories of Alvin — to better understand the best friend that got away.
Although it only had a short run on Broadway in 2009, revival productions across the country have revealed time and again the enduring heart of this story. Since then, the intimate and heartfelt musical has played all over the United States and the rest of the world, including South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, and Austria.
It’s “a memory play about two wonderfully strange kids” says Director McCray. “The music has echoes of influence from Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ where music operates in a highly narrative manner and beautifully chronicles the highs, the lows, and key moments of lives well-lived and the value of a life-changing friendship.”
Basically, an authentic and affecting work, the story is told through a series of songs, in turn playful, touching and dramatic. Bartram's lyrics are nimble, often intricate, but never too complicated for his spare, melodic lines.
As such, the melodies are not that easy to sing, and it is a testament to the skill of the two actors that they can so effortlessly navigate through it. “The Butterfly,” for instance, is a particularly memorable song not because of its melody, but because of the story it tells, elevated by the music. The songs serve not as showstoppers, but to move the story along.
The musical is set in a small town named Angel Falls, but it really ought to be Bedford Falls, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” being the work’s spiritual parent. Not only are the tone and theme similar, but we get numerous allusions to the film throughout.
In fact, the trigger for the whole work is the pivotal scene of Capra’s film taken to a tragic conclusion. Whereas George Bailey was saved from leaping off a bridge to his death by the angel Clarence, no such blessed helper came to the rescue of Alvin when he actually made the plunge.
The show begins with a device that's been used many times before: Thomas, his best friend since first grade from whom he’s been estranged for the past decade, comes back to deliver the eulogy. As the show proceeds in a series of flashbacks, we find out what drew them together, what forced them apart and what may have caused Alvin to kill himself. He comes to the conclusion that it should be about his life with Alvin ("Write What You Know") but cannot bring himself to write anything down. He is then visited by the ghost of Alvin, who tells him that they will write story after story about their childhood, until Thomas has completed the eulogy. Alvin walks around the room and removes stories from the room's bookshelves, which make up the musical's remaining songs.
Some of Hill’s dramaturgy in the early part of the show is tooth-achingly sweet as Alvin finds fey fascination in every quirk of nature and even makes angels in the snow with his best friend every Christmas Eve. What stands out most in these scenes are the touching songs and Mr. Moreno’s deliciously extroverted performance. Like an even more dysfunctional Charlie Brown, he radiates joy, fear, exaltation and terror all in one number, “Mrs. Remington,” his love letter to an understanding teacher. Wyn Moreno is a truly ingratiating talent.
Opposite to him in every way is Mr. Klena’s intense, brooding Thomas. Struggling to find himself as a writer and then breaking away from his home and friends as soon as he begins to make it big, Dillon Klena is excellent at capturing the mixed messages Thomas sends to the world. “I’m OK, but not really,” seems to be coming from his head like a giant cartoon bubble. He’s at his best in a song called “I Like It Here,” where he raves about a restaurant to his fiancee while cautiously putting their marriage on hold.
Hill’s book acquires some grit near the end, when we realize that what drives the two friends apart is the fact that Thomas has appropriated Alvin’s life to create his award-winning stories, never acknowledging the debt.
The stage setting is simple, merely two bookshelves, and a desk in front of a backdrop of a room. Considering the filming technique and health restrictions, both actors occupy the stage well, using every inch to convey different points and other locations. After a while, you stop noticing the simplicity, and you are drawn into the story that is being told.
The ending is strangely peaceful. Some might find it uplifting but unresolved. Yet that is I think the point. The audience is left with questions that are never answered because Thomas himself never knows the answers. After all, there are certain parts of your life that you will never understand. The only thing you can do is concentrate on what you do know and move on.
That said, it’s really an intelligent little musical with a warm heart. True, it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but it’s humane, sincere, bright and funny, entertaining, and possessing the courage of its sweet-tempered convictions. These days, that's a novelty.
This virtual performance began April 30th and will be available for viewing through June 6th, 2021, Friday and Saturday at 7:00 p.m. PDT and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. PDT Tickets are $25-49 and is available at https://chancetheater.com/production/story/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report