Let Me Tell You A Story About Alvin…

This has been a very emotional week, as one of our best friends, Lauren Uroff, died Tuesday morning. Given this, I was unsure what emotional roller-coaster would result when we attended “The Story of My Life at the Havok Theatre Company last night (the non-refundable, non-exchangable tickets had been purchased long before Lauren went into the hospital). This is because “The Story of My Life” is a unique musical: a simple two-man musical about friendship and how it touches our lives. I’m pleased to say that the musical was beautiful, and provided (at least for me) a wonderfully cathartic moment.

“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 Clarance 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.

On a personal level, this musical was very touching, for it had its parallels in the story and the ultimate theme. The musical takes place surrounded by books and writing: either in a real bookstore, or in the bookstore of Tom’s mind. Lauren was a lover of books, and she had a collection of books at home that could rival a small book store. But more importantly, it touched upon the theme of the butterfly and how it can impact the world: the beating of its wings create currents that move the wind along… and people touch other people in ways that can change their lives in major ways… and perhaps that is our purpose in the world. It also emphasizes that we should remember the people we love not through the physical things that they leave us, but with the stories about them and how they touched our lives. The most fitting eulogy begins with “Let me tell you a story about my friend”. It teaches us to treasure the stories of our lives, and to treasure the people with whom we share them.

This production starred two actors we have seen before: Robert J. Townsend (who we saw as the lead in CMT’s “Jekyll and Hyde”, and who we’ve been seeing at CMT going as far back as “Anything Goes”) as Thomas Weaver, and Chad Borden (who we saw in Havok’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) as Alvin Kelby. Both were strong singers and actors, who made you believe in their friendship and love for each other. They were just fun to watch, inhabiting their characters (which is something I love to see in actors). This came from a mix of the skill of these actors, as well as the creative direction of Nick DeGruccio (whose work we have also seen many times).
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

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 venues (such as the 99-seat Lillian Theatre used by Havok for this production). As noted above, I found the book very touching, and the music and lyrics beautiful — especially those of “The Butterfly”, which will now always make me think of Lauren. Don’t believe me? Go on: read the lyrics for that song. I’ll wait for you to get back. Was I right? Just beautiful. There is just so much meaning in the lines:

“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.”

Technically, the production was beautiful. 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. The sound (design by Drew Dalzell, who teaches at CalArts) was clear and clean. The music was provided by a three-piece ensemble hidden behind the stage conducted by Michael Paternostro, consisting of a piano, reed, and cello. The show was produced by Havok Theatre Company, with Kathleen Parker and Jodi Carlisle as associate producers.

The production stage manager was the “ever capable”™ Lindsay “Leroy” Martens (youarebonfante), who we know from all her work at Cabrillo. I’m giving Lindsay special mention because we were finally able to talk to her this season (we really can’t see her after evening shows at Cabrillo), and because she took the time to talk to our daughter about her work in technical theatre (and we are sure they will be able to work together in the future). She is just a really good person. I did, however, forget to ask her about “Leroy” :-). I also note it was wonderful seeing shutterbug93 at the show, and to get to meet and talk to Chad and Robert (and their families) after the show.

“The Story of My Life” continues at The Havok Theatre through April 4, 2010. Tickets are available through Havok’s secure website, as well as through Goldstar Events and LAStageTix (but both of these are likely to sell out—the show is that good). This is a show well worth seeing.

Upcoming Theatre. As for us, what’s upcoming on the theatre calendar? Next Saturday night (March 13) brings “Celebrate Dance 2010” at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The following weekend brings “On Golden Pond” at REP East on Saturday night @ 8pm (this was rescheduled from March 14 due to Lauren’s memorial service), with Sunday bringing another installment of “Meeting of Minds” — this will be the second episode with Karl Marx (Ed Asner), Sir Thomas More (Bruce Davison), Queen Marie Antoinette (Meeghan Holaway), and President US Grant (Dan Lauria). The last weekend of March has no theatre, but is still busy: there’s a Games Day on March 27, and Rick Recht is doing a free concert at TAS on March 28. April brings more of potential interest, including Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” at the Colony Theatre (tickets pending, likely April 10 or April 16), “Damn Yankees” at Van Nuys HS (tickets pending, April 15-17), the April installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre on April 18, “12 Angry Men” at REP East (April 24 @ 8pm, although Erin may have to see the May 2 Sunday Matinee due to AP Stats Camp). May looks to be equally busy, with “Little Shop of Horrors at Cabrillo Music Theatre (May 1), See What I Wanna See” at the Blank (likely May 9), The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson (likely May 15, evening), the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre (May 16), the Spring Dance Show at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22), and “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (May 30 @ 2pm). May will also bring the annual visit to the Southern California Ren Faire, although it looks like we’re going to have to divide and conquer: we’re like to go on Saturday May 8, and ellipticcurve, Erin, and one of Erin’s friends will go on Sunday, May 16 (we can’t do it that day due to “Meeting of Minds”, but it puts it after all of Erin’s AP exams).

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.