Last night, Neil Bartram’s and Brian Hill’s musical, The Story of My Life, opened at CATCO. Talked about as a heart-melting, holiday show, the production lends itself more towards tear-making, anger-inducing story.
A young writer, Tom, enters to the sound of two children making a pact, a memory. Whoever dies first must write the other’s eulogy. Adult Tom, hearing this memory, struggles to fulfill that promise to concoct an eloquent way to word his feelings toward his lifelong friend, Alvin. Out of the shadows, Alvin appears, gay and dapper, and we quickly realize the show occurs within Tom’s mind; his friend Alvin, his co-writer and ally in the eulogy writing process, exists in his head. Together they remember the significant moments of their friendship and their lives from age six to the present.
The show closed on Broadway after five performances—for good reason. The writing is just awful. Brian Hill and Neil Bartram’s musical seems tired and unoriginal, with little driving force. In efforts to delve into Tom’s brain, the audience sees Tom at his core: one of the most deplorable characters in contemporary Western theater. His absurdly pompous nature accentuates his loathsomeness, making it near impossible to care about anything he says, and inadvertently playing Alvin as a victim nobody loved. This makes the attempted sentimentality comical to the point of camp, particularly with the song “Butterfly.” In short, it almost seems that Tom and Alvin were never real friends, at least not since adolescence.
Given the challenges inherent in the script, CATCO creates an admirable production of The Story of My Life. Joe Bishara handles the contemptible character of Tom, excelling in portraying the self-absorbed tantrums prone to him. Bishara’s characterization expertly depicts the awkwardness of the writer, who barely progressed beyond fifteen, and highlights the multitude of insecurities of the character. Jeff Horst, who plays Alvin, acts so child-like, so innocent, that our hearts break a little for him and his lot in life. Horst’s portrayal of the wonderfully simple, hopeful George Bailey-type hometown boy rekindles the memory of that long-lost soul from the past and warms the heart.
Both Horst and Bishara impressively power through with plenty of energy for the ninety minute, one act musical where neither leaves the stage. The two men’s voices ring beautifully throughout the space, and the few duets they have create a heavenly harmonization that leaves the audience yearning for much more. Matt Clemens’s beautiful musical direction seamlessly guides the show from story to story, while the men pour out their memories through song.
Visually, Stephanie R. Gerckens’s masterful set showcases stacks and stacks of papers, self-lit shelves of books, and coffee cups littered throughout, symbolizing the mind of our writer, Tom. Director Steven C. Anderson’s playful staging upon this set simultaneously illustrates jungle gym tactics of children and Tom wracking his brain for stories for the eulogy. Jarod Wilson’s lighting design gracefully shifts to heighten various emotions Tom feels as Alvin plays inside his head.
All in all, The Story of My Life tells a visually fantastic tale deep with betrayal, heartache, and perhaps friendship with excellent songs and superb singing. Despite the “perfect holiday show” marketing, be warned, it really is quite a sad story. Be prepared for a night of contemplation of past relationships after seeing The Story of My Life.
The Story of My Life plays through Dec. 16 at Studio Two in the Vern Riffe Center, 77 S. High Street. General Admission is $41.00 on Thurs. and Sun.; $45.00 on Fri. and Sat. More information can be found online at www.catco.org.