Telling the Stories | “The Story of My Life” @ HFF18/Chromolume

userpic=fringeTheatre is visceral. It creates, in the audience, reactions that can range the gamut from “Wow! What was that!” to “Ugh. What was that?”. This weekend, we saw four shows — three  Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB)* shows, and one commercial theatre show — that were a clear demonstration of the range (and in that order). But first, however, my stock description of what the Fringe Festival is (as our first show was technically a Fringe show):

* For those unfamiliar with  Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), there are over 390 different shows occurring in the heart of Hollywood, with most along the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd from Western to W of LaBrea, and between Hollywood Blvd and Melrose. The shows run from 5 minutes to 2 hours, from one person shows to gigantic casts, from mimes to musicals. They have one — and only one — thing in common: they have to be able to load into a theatre in 15 minutes or less, and get out afterwards in the same time. You never know what you will see: it could be complete crap, it could be the start of a major new show. The shows and scheduling thereof are a nightmare to coordinate, but you could easily end up seeing four to five shows in a day. However, you can be guaranteed of a good time.

 And now, on to that first show, which was both a Fringe show, as well as being the last show from one of our theatre subscriptions:


The Story of My Life (HFF18/Chromolume)Theatre often sheds a light upon, and echoes, reality — sometimes in very painful and poignant ways. Back in 2010, a very dear dear friend of ours died.  Less than a week after she died, we were at the Havok Theatre production of Neil Bartram and  Brian Hill (FB)’s musical, The Story of My Life (at the Lillian Theatre, now The Broadwater — host to many Fringe productions). As I wrote then, the combination of the story and the circumstances moved me to tears. To understand why, you need to understand the story — or perhaps stories — being told in this intimate, two-person musical. Here’s how I described it back then:

“The Story of My Life” tells the story of the friendship of Thomas and Alvin, who met in first grade. It starts out right after Alvin had died by jumping off a bridge, and his friend Thomas, now a famous writer, has the obligation to write Alvin’s eulogy. Thomas is blocked and can’t come up with anything, and so Alvin appears in his head, urging him to write what he knows, and that a eulogy is simply a series of stories, with a tearjerker at the end. But Thomas is still blocked, trying to figure out where this childhood friendship went wrong. So Alvin starts pulling books off the bookshelves of Thomas’ mind, sharing the stories. We start with their meeting, where their teacher Mrs. Remington introduced them: Thomas dressed as Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and Alvin dressed as the ghost of his dead mother. We see them grow up: picking the magical book from Alvin’s father’s bookstore that turns Tom into a writer; the Christmas’ where they make snow angels and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”; Tom’s application to college; Tom’s distancing himself from Alvin (and his subsequently becoming blocked). In the end, we see how this distancing affects Tom’s ability as a writer (for his stories turn out to be expressions of his adventures with Alvin), and the reconciliation of the friendship in Tom’s mind.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a recurrent theme in this musical, and perhaps is a bit heavy-handed. It shows up repeatedly: from Clarence the angel, to everyone saying “Everytime a bell rings…” whenever the door bells ring, to Alvin being compared to George Bailey (who sets aside his own life to attend to another’s responsibility, and thus never leaves town), and ultimately, to the parallel in Alvin’s death… and perhaps the reason behind the death. It didn’t bother me, but I can see where others might find it heavy… but then again, I’ve seen people who model their lives around movies. It simply shows the power of the media and metaphor in our life.

A little over 8 years ago, the musical was resonating with the death of our dear friend — a friend whose life touched ours in ways that are still felt to this day. This weekend we saw The Story of My Life again as part of the Fringe Festival, and the musical was resonating with additional recent deaths. First were the suicides over the past week of Kate Spade (Katherine Noel Brosnahan) and Anthony Bourdain (in an unexplained manner, similar to Alvin); second, the confirmation of the death of the producing company, Chromolume Theatre (FB) — their Fringe production of The Story of My Life will be their final production, as far as I know. As with my dear friend, all of them touched and changed the lives of people. We’ve been seeing testaments and stories about the impact of Spade and Bourdain all week. As for Chromolume: it has touched the lives of actors and audiences; it has given people exposure; it has brought forgotten gems to the intimate stage (such as their recent spectacular production of Dessa Rose, as well as lots of forgotten Sondheim). As with another producing company/theatre that died a few years ago, REP in Santa Clarita, we keep running into people who we first met in those productions.

The key point in the show is that our lives our represented by the stories that we tell, and the stories we file away in our cranial filing cabinets. The incidents behind the stories influence our lives, and that — as in the ways the flapping of a butterfly’s wings affects the currents in the wind, so the interactions and influences of the people and incidents in our lives create subtle changes that move us forward. The notion of “The Butterfly” is a central metaphor for this show. Here is an excerpt from the song of that name that many feel is one of the most beautiful songs in the show:

“You’re a butterfly my friend,
Powerful and strong
And I’m grateful for the way
You’ve always hurried me along.
When you flap your wings to stretch yourself
It might seem small to you
But you change the world
With everything you do.”

The book behind “The Story of My Life” is by Brian Hill, who received a 2009 Drama Desk Award nomination for the book. The music and lyrics were by Neil Bartram, who also received 2009 Drama Desk Award nominations for Outstanding Music and Outstanding Lyrics. The show opened on Broadway in 2009 but closed in a week: this is not a show for a large Broadway house, but is perfect in the smaller and more intimate venues.

As I noted earlier, this production was also a revisiting of something we’d seen before (that was a theme for Saturday’s shows — this show was followed by the touring production of the recent revival of The Color Purple, which we had also seen a decade earlier). Back in 2010 when we first saw this show, it was a spectacularly executed set filled with books. As I wrote about the 2010 production: “The set (designed by Tom Buderwitz) consisted of rows upon rows of bookshelves and books, covered with books and papers in shades of grey and black (collected through the hard work of one of our favorite stage managers), with a bridge across the back. It was gently lit (in a lovely lighting design by Steve Young) through mood expressing colors via overhead leikos and lighting behind the bookshelves.” This production, on the other hand, was a Fringe production. This meant that it had 15 minutes to load in, and the same to load out. It was much simpler: a table, some boxes of books, more books on the floor, a podium, and some wooden screens. It was, in a sense, a deconstructed set design. But this show is so simple in that aspect of the staging that it worked equally well.

One of the things that made this particular production spectacular was the cast: Andrew Schufman (FB) as Thomas, and Daniel Koh (FB) as Alvin. Koh we had seen recently in another Bartram/Hill musical, The Theory of Relativity, and it was a delight to see him again. He has a wonderful voice, and he brought so many small touches and quirks to Alvin that just brought him to life.  Schufman, on the other hand, was new to us. He gave a lovely warm performance with a great singing voice that was quite touching. In short: they made these characters people.

Conor Sheehan (FB) and Johnathan Brett (FB) are the understudies for Schufman and Koh, respectively. They will get their chance to shine at the June 16th performance.

The production was directed by Michael Marchak (FB), who also designed the movement and presumably the “set and props” (as much as you have those in Fringe). Richard Berent (FB) provided the musical direction, which means he was at the piano. Veronica Vasquez (FB) was the stage manager.

This show is one of the best shows we’ve seen at Fringe this year (and it ranks right up there with the best musicals we’ve seen at Fringe over our many years of attending Fringe). Especially given the turmoil behind the scenes with the producing company, that this show shines so bright is a testament to the talent that was Chromolume, and the people that made it special. Go see it, and you’ll walk away moved by the experience. Theatre, at its essence, is the telling of stories to impact lives. That is what this show is — that is what this show does — and that is why you must see it.

As I write this, there are three more presentations of The Story Of My Life at The Hobgoblin Playhouse on Hollywood Blvd: June 12, 16, and 23. Tickets are available through the Fringe website.

A final note: Although there was a hope of resurrection, it appears that hope has been extinguished and this production is Chromolume’s last. We’ve only been subscribing for two years, and were impressed with what the theatre did with what little it had. We will miss the friends we were starting to make there, and hope they turn up at future companies. It does mean we’re looking for a replacement subscription: I’m open to suggestions for a similar theatre with similar programming — meaning affordable revisitings of rarely-done musicals, with high quality.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) ז״ל, a mini-subscription at the Soraya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

It’s June — ah, June. That, my friends, means only one thing: the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), Here’s our June schedule:

July will get busier again. It starts with the 50th Anniversary of Gindling Hilltop Camp, followed by On Your Feet at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The next weekend brings Jane Eyre The Musical at Chromolume Theatre (FB) at the Hudson [yeah! Chromolume found a new location]. The third weekend in July brings a Bat Mitzvah in Victorville, and Beauty and The Beast at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) that evening on Saturday, and a hold for the OperaWorks (FB) “Opera ReConstructed” at CSUN on Sunday. The last weekend may be a Muse/ique (FB) show. August starts with Waitress at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) on Saturday, and the Actors Co-Op Too! production of Always Andrews: A Musical Tribute to the Andrews Sisters on Sunday at Actors Co-op (FB). The next weekend brings the last Actors Co-Op Too! production, Twelfth Night, or What You Will at Actors Co-op (FB). There may also be a production of The Most Happy Fella at MTW — I’m not sure about it, but the hold date is on the calendar.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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