A Bittersweet Story

By Geary Danihy

What do you do when you are a best-selling author and your literary muse – and best childhood friend -- is a home-town, “four-eyed” nerd who has an obsession with Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and, one Halloween, dresses up in fuzzy slippers, pink hair curlers and his dead mother’s ratty bathrobe to become the ghost of mother past?

            Well, if you are Thomas Weaver (Rob Sutton), one of the two characters in “The Story of my Life,” which recently opened at MTC MainStage in Westport, you go into major denial. You try as hard as possible to forget what you owe to Alvin Kelby (Michael Di Liberto) as you diligently, and successfully, write stories about memories that have Alvin as prime mover.

            Such is the emotional and psychological thrust of this musical that successfully walks a fine line between tragicomedy and maudlin melodrama. Brian Hill, who wrote the book, has created a story about friendship and what our present – and our success in the present – owes to the past. Think “Brian’s Song” and “Beaches” – then throw in some “Ordinary People” and “Terms of Endearment” – and you’ve got it, but it’s too easy to reference other such efforts and be satisfied that you’ve captured the essence of “The Story of My Life,” for although the musical is derivative it has a life of its own, and that life is very engaging, mainly due to the efforts of Sutton and Di Liberto, deftly guided by director Kevin Connors.

            The play opens, in the dark, with the voices of young Thomas and Alvin pledging to speak at each other’s funeral. Thomas archly asks how that might work: who gets to speak first? And how can the other one, now dead, fulfill his part of the commitment? Well, that’s the structure of the play, for when the lights come up Alvin is, in fact, dead, and Thomas is charged with delivering his friend’s eulogy, but Alvin is watching and demands that Thomas be honest with himself…and finally deal with their relationship.

            What ensues is a trip down memory lane as Thomas and Alvin battle over what was real, what was fantasy, and whether or not the distinction matters. Along the way, several controlling metaphors are established, chief among them the Capra film, including George Bailey’s desperate desire to throw himself off a bridge, snow angels, the mother’s bathrobe, the eulogy pledge and a bookstore (the repository of written dreams and desires) that Alvin’s father owned and Alvin inherited.

            The songs that Neil Bartram has composed for the musical are basically “story-songs,” long on message and meaning and short on toe-tapping, hummable-after-the-play melodies, but they are, by and large, effective and dramatically compelling, especially “Butterfly,” sung by Sutton, “Independence Day,” which captures a moment that is anything but, and an artfully staged “You’re Amazing, Tom,” sung by Di Liberto as the Thomas character tries to justify his writing while at the same time denying its source. And then there is the final number, “Angels in the Snow,” which successfully attacks the tear ducts.

            That there is an engaging coherence to the musical, as well as an emotional build and catharsis, owes much to Sutton’s and Di Liberto’s fine performances. Alone and together, they bring to life the tangled relationship of their two characters, their effort enhanced by the intimacy of the venue – when a character is mere feet from you and emotionally bleeding, it’s hard not to respond.

            The proximity of the two actors to the audience means, among other things, that subtle gestures and discrete body movements that might have meant nothing on a larger stage become central to the enjoyment of the musical. This is most manifest in the “You’re Amazing, Tom” sequence, with Thomas struggling at a podium to justify his writing career, without ever mentioning the importance of his “friend,” as Alvin bobs and weaves, taking each verbal hit in stride.

            Life is story, and that’s what “The Story of My Life” is all about. The question is, whose story is it? The English poet and prelate John Donne hinted at the answer when he penned “No man is an island,” and this is what Alvin ultimately teaches Thomas. In the play’s final, touching moment, Thomas, now set to deliver his best friend’s eulogy, grips the podium, smiles and says: “Let me tell you a story about Alvin.”

            “The Story of My Life” runs through Sunday, Feb 7. For tickets or more information, call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com.       

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