Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: A CHRISTMAS MEMORY Warms Holiday Hearts

Ciarán McCarthy, William Spangler, and Marsha Waterbury.
Photos by Ed Krieger.

It’s fruitcake weather in Laguna Beach and you can breathe it in the air as the heartwarming holiday musical A Christmas Memory fills the stage at Laguna Playhouse. Set in rural Alabama in 1955 and, for much of the show, flashbacks to 1933, it is a nostalgic story of the best sort; short on sequins and spectacle but filled with tenderness and love. And couldn’t we all use a little more of that this time of year?

Truman Capote lived it, and in his short story on which the musical is based, captured what it was like to grow up poor but happy in the south, collecting moments in his memory that would later be found in the pages of the stories he would write. Duane Poole adapts the source material with care, retaining the gentle poetic nature of the original while highlighting the ordinary relationships and events that shape the foundation of a young boy’s character.

Buddy (William Spangler) is just like any other kid, inquisitive, fun-loving, and ready for adventure. In essence abandoned by his parents after their divorce, he lives with his much older cousins – Jennie, a spinster (Tracy Lore), Seabon, a confirmed bachelor (Tom Shelton), and Sook, his best friend (Marsha Waterbury). Together he and the childlike elderly woman pal around and make the most of their meager existence, finding fun in the simple things around them. Theirs is a special relationship, and what she lacks in education and worldliness, she more than makes up for in kindness and caring. They are the heart of the story and a beautiful expression of what it best in us all.

Adult Buddy (Ciarán McCarthy) narrates A Christmas Memory, returning to the house they all lived in after the three have passed away. Twenty years later he is now a successful writer, though struggling to find meaning in his life while living in a city where something always has to be next. He watches his younger self as scenes from his youth come to life, emerging from the worn pictures in his mind. One by one the bittersweet memories reveal an answer – a path to the next story he will tell – of what he knows best and the people he loved most.

Director Nick DeGruccio finds the sweetness and pain in each of the characters without over-sentimentalizing their unrealized dreams and longings. His light touch allows Poole’s words, Carol Hall’s lyrics, and Larry Grossman’s beautiful music to do its work, and facilitates the actors’ ability to create characters the audience can understand and champion, rather than feel sorry for.

Seabon’s unopened box of pins to mark places on the map he would one day travel to reveals a life he never lived, and when we learn that Jennie chose to set aside the dreams of a young woman to take care of her weaker siblings who would surely have suffered without her, it explains her stern inflexibility. Shelton and Lore do lovely nuanced work with their respective roles and watching the realizations hit home in McCarthy’s eyes is quite moving.

Waterbury is the shining jewel of the production as Sook. Her warmth is contagious, her demeanor sincere, and the relationship she creates with Spangler as young Buddy is wonderfully layered. When it comes time for her to let go of Buddy at Jennie’s insistence, it becomes her turn to sacrifice part of her life, for she knows that one day he’ll need more to make him happy than what their simple life can provide. Amber Mercomes (Anna Stabler) shows off her rich lower register in her dynamic version of “Detour ” and even Siena Yusi as Buddy’s tomboy neighbor, Nelle, gets to do some fast-patter singing when she’s not punching Buddy in the arm. 

D. Martyn Bookwalter’s scenic design allows for a feeling of great space that enhances the sense of moving forward and backward in time but Joshua McKendry’s sound design is problematic throughout. The hollow, hooty sound is very distracting and alters the characters’ voices artificially. Lore fares best because the timbre of her voice cuts through the hollowness but the rest of the cast has to fight to keep from being swallowed up, a task they shouldn’t have to be concerned with. 

The sound also creates a disjointed relationship between the offstage trio of musicians (music director Darryl Archibald and Tyler Emerson on keyboards, Drew Hemwall on percussion, with Emerson also covering violin) and the cast. Ive never noticed this kind of a sound problem at Laguna Playhouse before so I hope it was an isolated occurance and not a intentional choice. 

Bruce Goodrich’s terrific costumes are full of the drab colors and well-worn textiles that characterize the Depression era but contain enough detail to be pleasing to the eye and functional for the actors, and any production that Steven Young designs, including this one, is elevated by the way he captures the light.

A Christmas Memory is a beautiful addition to the traditional catalogue of holiday shows youll find at this time of year. We may not always be able to make sense of life while were living it, but when we examine it in hindsight, what we find is the challenges, the joys, and the disappointments are all part of growing up. They make us who we are. And sometimes we just need to be reminded of that.

Siena Yusi, William Spangler, and Pickle

William Spangler and Marsha Waterbury

William Spangler, Marsha Waterbury, and Ciarán McCarthy

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY
December 2 – 29, 2013
Laguna Playhouse
606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach

Tickets: (949) 497-ARTS (2787) or
www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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