Friday, February 20, 2009

The Story of My Life

GRADE: C-


Music and lyrics by Neil Bartram, book by Brian Hill. Dir. Richard Maltby Jr. Booth Theater. (CLOSED)

Most critics really wanted to like Story of My Life, a two-person musical about an author (Will Chase) struggling to write a eulogy for his childhood friend (Malcolm Gets). After all, how great would it be in these economically troubled times if a small show like this one could succeed? Ultimately, however, they agree that there are too many plot holes and cliches for the show to work. Most critics refer to the score as lesser Sondheim, and two critics compared the story to the movie Beaches. Most of the criticism comes from the fact that too much is hinted at but not dealt with, especially the homosexual undertones. Some get through the reviews mostly unharmed--nobody faults Malcolm Gets and Will Chase, Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations, or Robert Brill's set designs. If you do want to see the show, you might want to hurry, as more than one critic predicted an early end to the Broadway run (and their reviews won't help matters). They also suggest audience members brush up on their It's A Wonderful Life, which is heavily referenced throughout.


NY1 A
(Roma Torre) Partners Neil Bartram, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Brian Hill, who wrote the obviously Sondheim-inspired book, fine-tuned this work with a keen insight for those seemingly inconsequential moments in relationships that turn out to be magically momentous. Bartram's lovely songs resonate on many levels, while Richard Maltby Jr. adds further dimension with his sharply-etched direction.

Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) We are in eulogy territory, a world of remembrance for "The Story of My Life," a heartfelt little musical that has the courage of its sweet-tempered, low-key convictions. These days, that's a novelty. In a Broadway world of big musicals determined to sell themselves, this gentle new show celebrates softly but with an emotional pull that slowly wins you over. Whether that's enough to bring in theatergoers used to more immediate, insistent razzle-dazzle remains to be seen.

The Record A-
(Robert Feldberg) The show, which runs 90 minutes, has received a spirited production, fluently staged by Richard Maltby Jr. and physically built around a semi-mystical, sky-high bookcase (designed by Robert Brill). Chase and Gets are ingratiating actors and strong singers but, most crucially, they believably convey the shifting relationship between their characters. Another key element of the experience is the Sondheim-esque score by Bartram. With its recurring musical motifs and clever lyrics — which are often sung dialogue — it carries the emotions of the evening…“The Story of My Life” doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but it’s humane, sincere, bright and funny — and how can you resist a show with a lyric like that?

CurtainUp B-
(Elyse Sommer) The staging is professional and quite Broadway-worthy. The all white, bare bones set by Robert Brill that greets you when you take your seat (a desk, a chair and a lectern) bursts to dramatic life when the curtain opens all the way to reveal projectionist Dustin O'Neill's wall of books and manuscripts. Director Richard Maltby, Jr. does his utmost to keep Chase and Gets moving around. The small, unseen band and Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations bring out the best in the music of a young musical team that knows how to touch your heart but must still find a way to do so without quite so many overly derivative and sugar-y ingredients.

DC Theatre Scene C+
(Richard Seff) The sad part is that the actual writing (the words, not the music) is fine. We come to know and like and ultimately become annoyed with these two men because we want them to grow up and face things as they are. Musically, Neil Bartram owes much to Master Sondheim, but his music lacks melody. To the untrained ear, all these musical monologues sound similar. Only their lyrics (also by Mr. Bartram) illuminate, move, inform. Eighteen charming monologues grow tiresome as well, clever as they are. The concept requires that between musical numbers, we must get small talk that leads into yet another musical monologue. Will Chase and Malcolm Gets as Thomas and Alvin are spot on perfect, and help enormously to make the short evening engaging. But they are trapped by the limitations of the concept, by the method in which the authors decided to tell their story. It’s difficult not to root for these two immature but loving characters, but I think it would have been wiser to keep them housed in a tiny theatre, where the quality of the writing might have been enough to sustain us, and where musical accompaniment by just a piano, bass and drum might have made the score sound less innocuous, for it wouldn’t have been trying so hard to sound like a Broadway show.

NYMag C+
(Scott Brown) But the sentiments here, and the music that animates them, are mostly harmless: there's a lot of lush, lovely melodic maundering, but no signal theme or idea asserts itself. (Though surely, there must be some kind of "Middlebrow Award" for a lyric like: "You haven't had more than a bite of your tuna tartare / Or the hummus.") Gets and Chase are charming in their given modes (huggable flaming spaz and flinty, furtive jock), but, as written, these characters are essentially a couple of major-league narcissists, the differing trajectories and luminosities of their lives notwithstanding. Big-city egotist eulogizes small-town solipsist: Now, there's a story—albeit a darker one than Bartram and Hill are prepared to tell. As Tom and Al rush around, literally pulling the stories of their lives off a towering white bookshelf (a monolithic setpiece that variously represents Tom's memory, Al's life, and the show's irredeemably generic, blank-page of a soul), you may find yourself wondering about the other, better stories they withhold, the stories we're not being told—the stories on those high upper shelves, out of easy reach.

TheaterMania C+
(David Finkle) Gets and Chase remain kinetically appealing through their characters' recollections and fraternal contentiousness. They sing with robust conviction even when too much of the score begins to sound like one extended number composed with Stephen Sondheim as a Clarence-like guiding angel. (The nine-piece orchestra plays Jonathan Tunick's arrangements, which could also be enhancing the Sondheimian echoes.) Yet, there are several shining musical moments. Gets' song about Mrs. Remington is a valentine to every influential teacher who ever stirred a grade-schooler's mind and heart; it's got as much charm as a song could hope to have and will surely start listeners reminiscing about their own childhood mentors. Chase delivers a rousing musical fable entitled "The Butterfly" that's yet another Kelby-triggered anecdote. But if much of The Story of My Life is engaging, the whole is never as affecting as it might be because Bartram and Hill have been coy about what really transpired between Kelby -- who never married and who never mentions a girlfriend -- and Weaver, who gracelessly backs out of a wedding to someone named Ann and thereafter seemingly remains single. That the two men love each other is clear. That they are in love with each other is only hinted at but never directly confronted. While the authors clearly want their characters' relationship to be ambiguous, here ambiguity ends up being synonymous with cop-out, depriving theatergoers of the full story of these men's lives.

American Theater Web C+
(Andy Propst) Throughout Chase and Gets deliver winning portrayals of the characters – at all ages. Both deliver Bartram's songs, sometimes pleasant, pop-sounding numbers and at other times tunes that bring to mind work by composers like Stephen Sondheim and William Finn, with passion and heartfelt conviction. Individually, the men turn in performances that are filled with delightful details, and as Alvin, Gets' open face, gleaming smile and almost complete innocence combine to make a truly winning performance. However enjoyable both men's work is, though, it is not enough to bolster "Story" beyond what is really just a slim theatrical volume of reminiscences, a diversion, but nothing more, for tough times.

The New Yorker C
(Unsigned) Through flashbacks, we learn that Thomas blew off the childlike Alvin after moving to the big city, despite basing all of his fiction on their boyhood experiences; we also learn, among other flashes of wisdom, that “years are like snowflakes / that pass in the blink of an eye.” The show doesn’t get much deeper than that, whether about grief or friendship, though its triteness is nothing if not sincere.

Wall Street Journal C-
(Terry Teachout) What we have here, in short, is a namby-pamby variation on "Merrily We Roll Along," and Neil Bartram's songs, which sound like sugar-sprinkled Sondheim, make the family resemblance clearer still. The trouble with Mr. Bartram's score is that it has no edge at all -- every song is nostalgic to a fault -- and the trouble with Brian Hill's book is that it's static and surprise-free. The result is a show that runs out of dramatic gas at the halfway mark, by which time you've long since guessed what's going to happen in the second half. Might "The Story of My Life" have worked in a small Off-Broadway house? At the very least it would have worked better, if only because of Mr. Gets, who has the more grateful of the two roles and makes the most of it. Immensely likable and physically graceful, he never fails to give you something worth looking at (and listening to).

AM New York C-
(Matt Windman) Perhaps the show would have worked better in a small-scale cabaret setting as just a song cycle. But at Broadway prices, simply reaching for the phone and calling an old childhood friend would be far more fun and affordable than sitting through “The Story of My Life.”

Time Out New York C-
(Adam Feldman) Framed as an extended attempt at a eulogy, the show is rarely in the present tense, and the rhyme-heavy, melody-thin songs are largely in the same mode of retrospective narration that has been draining the blood out of cabaret songwriting for decades. "The Story of My Life" needs fewer stories and more life.

New York Daily News D+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) To its credit, the show has heart, and Bartram's lyrics are nimble. On the minus side, the plot is repetitive, clich├ęd (the notion that small towns are for losers and cities are for winners, for instance) and tilts toward treacle (those snow angels, and grown men making them). The music, which is contempo rary and pleasant enough, isn't distinctive and lacks variety. What makes it most noteworthy is that it recalls "Sunday in the Park With George." Cadging from Stephen Sondheim isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's far from the best thing when you're debuting as a fresh talent.

Hartford Courant D+
(Malcolm Johnson) Malcolm Gets gives a heroic performance as Alvin Kelby, the nerdy weirdo who gets through his education with the aid of Thomas Weaver, thoughtfully played and sung by Will Chase.

But the ideas of the show, as represented by the prize-winning stories by Weaver, too often come across as ludicrous. You have to wonder what committee is handing out the prizes to stories of a butterfly and snow angels. The songs by Neil Bartram are melodic but hollow, and the book by Brian Hill goes nowhere. The direction by Richard Maltby consists largely of taking off jackets, and putting them back on again. There are some amusing snowball fights with the crumpled remains of the jottings of Thomas, but otherwise, much of the action is mimed.

Village Voice D+
(Michael Feingold) Strangest of all may be the show's idea of how literature gets made. That Tom should make a prestigious living writing only collections of short stories is implausible enough, though not impossible. But even Donald Barthelme or Raymond Carver couldn't have built an entire career off his recollections of one boyhood friend. The assumption that authorship is merely the literal transcription of what somebody else says or does must be the wackiest notion of art ever advanced onstage, even on Broadway. All authors borrow, but if they don't, as the expression goes, "make it their own," the result of their borrowings isn't likely to be interesting enough to be publishable. Tom waxes defensive over his use of Alvin as material, but we never learn enough about his own inner life to figure out if that's what keeps them apart.

Variety D
(David Rooney) Perhaps the core theme is unacknowledged inspiration or the artist's responsibility to his muse. Perhaps it's the complexity of life and how that defies neat encapsulation. Perhaps it's the power of stories to evolve out of seemingly insignificant details and to endure. But like most everything else, those reflections evaporate as they surface. Even in its most touching moments, this dull, drippy show never makes you care much. Matching the story and characters, the songs don't leave any lasting impression. They are pretty, melodic, interchangeable and more than a little derivative. (In addition to Sondheim, Bartram borrows from William Finn and Stephen Schwartz.) And Richard Maltby Jr.'s efficient, anonymous production unfolds on Robert Brill's white-on-white minimal set as if its innocuous vanilla-ness were a virtue. But quote ads proclaiming "Pleasant!" or "Inoffensive!" don't sell tickets to Broadway musicals.

Talkin' Broadway D
(Matthew Murray) The participation of a top-tier director (Richard Maltby, Jr.) to enforce unadorned honesty as the overriding theme and a world-class orchestrator (Jonathan Tunick) to give the score weight and sweep it would likely never receive under other circumstances does help elevate this often heavy-legged show. And the minuscule cast and triumphantly modest scenic requirements (Robert Brill’s set is little more than one half-bookshelf and a few attendant pieces of furniture, which Ken Billington and Paul Toben have aggressively lit) make it obvious why this show was produced in these perilously lean economic times. Unfortunately, nothing about the show as a complete theatrical enterprise registers as the work of artistic-minded professionals fueled by an intense desire to communicate something vital about the human experience. It reminded me most of the almost-almost-there offerings that typically form the bulk of the entries in the New York Musical Theatre Festival: titles that display their writers’ latent but undeveloped promise, but that no one in charge seriously thinks will - or should - go anywhere. Bartram and Hill obviously feel strongly about their subject, likely because one or both were touched by the loss of someone close to them, but that passion doesn’t prevent you from checking your watch every three minutes.

New York Times D
(Ben Brantley) You see, the creators of this production, which is directed by Richard Maltby Jr., have taken their reducing program a little too far. In addition to jettisoning the usual excesses of tourist-trapping extravaganzas, they have tossed away such niceties as originality, credibility, tension and excitement. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to tell you that Mr. Gets’s character is dead when the show begins. So, for all practical purposes, is “The Story of My Life.”

Backstage D-
(David Sheward) In these financially strapped times, there are sound economic reasons for mounting a two-character, single-set, 90-minute musical with only nine musicians. But there are few sound artistic reasons for mounting The Story of My Life. It's not the size of the show that works against it. Vest-pocket tuners can have as much impact as any big-budget blockbuster. The trouble is that Brian Hill's book and Neil Bartram's score are so lightweight and derivative they have all the impact of a Hallmark card.

Newsday D-
(Linda Winer) It would be lovely to be able to say nice things about "The Story of My Life," the two-man musical that showed up on Broadway last night with no hype and lots of obvious care.

But, really.

The 90-minute show, written and composed by newcomers from Toronto, is banal, improbable and unrelentingly derivative. And boring? Please. The production, directed by Richard Maltby Jr., does have a handsome dreamlike set by Robert Brill and engaging performances by Will Chase and Malcolm Gets.

New York Post F
(Frank Scheck) Over the course of 90 minutes and 18 interchangeable songs, the two rehash their troubled relationship, beginning with a childhood in which Alvin definitely stood out from the rest of the pack. "No more playing with bugs, Alvin/No more wearing your dead mother's robe/There are bullies and thugs, Alvin/Every one a potential Alvin-o-phobe," warns Thomas in one number, which gives an idea of the show's lyrical sophistication.

Bloomberg News F
(John Simon) We know we are in trouble when mawkish parallels to the sentimental movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” -- with its hero, George Bailey, its angel, Clarence, its attempted suicide off a bridge -- become a running subplot. We also get pretentious quotations from Mark Twain and John Donne. More pretentious yet is the way the dialogue keeps turning into recitative, which veers into spurts of song with pedestrian lyrics and near-tuneless music (mitigated, somewhat, by the able Jonathan Tunick’s astute orchestrations). By the time we get to the fourth iteration of “Saying Goodbye,” we are sorely tempted to follow suit. The book is delusional enough to think itself poetry, as individual lines or chunks of dialogue recur at all too short intervals like refrains in a poem.

NY1 A 13; Associated Press A- 12; The Record A- 12; CurtainUp B- 9; DC Theatre Scene C+ 8; NYMag C+ 8; TheaterMania C+ 8; American Theater Web C+ 8; New Yorker C 7; WSJ C- 6; AM New York C- 6; Time Out New York C- 6; New York Daily News D+ 5; Hartford Courant D+ 5; Village Voice D+ 5; Variety D 4; Talkin' Broadway D 4; New York Times D 4; Backstage D- 3; Newsday D- 3; New York Post F 1; Bloomberg News F 1; TOTAL: 138/22 = 6.27 (C-)

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