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THEATER REVIEW: “The Story Of My Life” is a mixed blessing

There’s a lot to be said for the small, intimate musical that doesn’t depend on whiz-bang technical wizardry or platoons of cast members high-stepping across the stage.

“The Story Of My Life” is such a small story, about two boys and their friendship. San Diego Musical Theatre presents the San Diego premiere of the show through Feb. 6 at the Lyceum Theatre. Nick DeGruccio directs.

Thomas Weaver (Robert J. Townsend) and Alvin Kelby (Chad Borden) meet in Mrs. Remington’s first-grade class, bonding over the Capra classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” They make snow angels and lob snowballs at each other.

The motherless Alvin creeps the other kids out with his repeated Halloween costume – playing the ghost of his mother in mom’s old chenille bathrobe, fuzzy slippers and pink curlers – and demonstrates further oddness with his theory that a single butterfly flapping its wings changes the world’s weather pattern.

Thomas just wants to be a writer. When the time comes, Thomas goes away to college and later becomes a famous writer; Alvin stays home to work in (and then inherit) dad’s bookstore, watching his friend’s success from afar.

Thomas narrates the time-shifting story. Life goes on. The friendship stagnates from lack of propinquity and effort. Thomas doesn’t acknowledge until it’s too late that Alvin was the “wind beneath his wings” (to quote a song from “Beaches,” a similarly themed film about two women friends).

Not exactly an original plot. Stephen Sondheim tried it in his similarly themed 1981 flop “Merrily We Roll Along” (though Sondheim was nominated for a Tony for the score).

But composer/lyricist Neil Bartram and book writer Brian Hill thought it would make a good musical. In some ways it does, but its Broadway debut only lasted five regular performances, probably partly because it was staged in the much too large Booth Theatre.

The problem is that it doesn’t track the friendship well. Thomas and Alvin age (which we do not see). They don’t fight, or compete, or spend any appreciable time together, or exchange Christmas cards.

But when Thomas comes home from college to find Alvin still in chenille-robe mode and making snow angels, the handwriting is on the wall for the friendship.

And then Alvin dies, presumably by his own hand, leaving Thomas to fret about writing the eulogy. But since we know next to nothing about Alvin, even the death doesn’t affect us as much as we want it to.

Production values are high, with a simple but effective set by Tom Buderwitz, good lighting and sound by Steven Young and Larry Esau, respectively.
There are some lovely songs – notably, a paean to teachers (“Mrs. Remington”) and a nod to bookstore owners who can always find just the right book for the customer (“The Greatest Gift”).

The major reason to see “The Story Of My Life” is Townsend’s terrific performance and gorgeous bari-tenor voice. The next reason is Borden, whose voice isn’t quite as lovely but works excellently for Alvin.

What’s missing is an emotional through-line, some reason to care, some answers to obvious questions like why Alvin stayed when he didn’t need to, and why he killed himself.

The details

San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of “The Story Of My Life” plays through Feb. 6 at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (858) 560-5740 or visit www.sdmt.org.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.