The Story of my Life at cv REP proves that it’s a wonderful life inDeed

Frank Capra and Mark Twain glue the lives of Alvin Kelby and Thomas Weaver, the two-men characters of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s winter/holiday musical titled “The Story of My Life.”   And like Capra and Twain, “The Story of My Life” is endearing, life affirming, and very American.  What a perfect drama choice for this small theatrical gem in the heart of the Coachella Valley.

With music and lyrics by Neil Bartram and book by Brian Hill, the musical is spare and intimate.  Using only two actors throughout the production, accented with three live musicians (hooray for live musical accompaniment!), a wide-ranging story of friendship, crossing and diverging lives, loss and remembrance is told in music, and some “recitative.”  [Dare I call this production “opera,” as almost all the dialogue is sung?]  We start at the end and wind back and forth in time as the audience is made to piece together the story of two lives both intimate and distant, posing the question quite literary “What was the moment?” when close friends begin to drift apart.

True, the posited question — and the inventive non-chronological construct —  is not completely original.  We have seen it before in Steven Sodheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.”   And of course the storyline of two friends, the one successful riding on the “wings” of the other less-successful pal, was already effectively explored in the 1988 film “Beaches”, where Bette Midler served up her “Wind beneath My Wings” anthem of friendship.  But keep in mind that Frank Capra was accused of the very same criticism — of being derivative and overtly sentimental — when his classic film “It’s A Wonderful Life” was initially released in 1946.  Heck, so was Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” for that matter.  And with the passage of time, of course, we know that both works have withstood the test, rising to be pillars of the classic arts in their respective media.  It is my prophesy that “The Story of My Life” will prove to be equally loved once the critics are done with their Scrooging and bah-humbugging.

As the play opens, Thomas has returned to his long-outgrown small hometown to deliver [ok, spoiler alert!] the eulogy for his once-best-friend’s funeral.  And from there, we are taken, as if by magic via Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” on a look-back on their shared childhood.  The narrative of the two boys’ first meeting is quite touching, delivered via the number “Mrs. Remington.”  Here, we learn of the two boys’ shared affinity for the classic holiday film, setting up for us, the audience, the inherent message that each of our actions has positive and lasting long-term effects on the lives we touch.  The number “The Butterfly Effect” hones the point home.

All the musical numbers are lyrical and quite melodic.  Each one delivered by a most-effective cast, again chosen with great, great skill by director Ron Celona.  Mr. Chris Daniel as Alvin Kelby and Mr. Craig McEldowney as Thomas Weaver are both spectacularly memorable.  They glide effortlessly between objects of the spare set, and each one delivers their musical narratives with ease, clarity, and beauty.  Credit is also deservedly directed to musical director and pianist Scott Storr and his two other musicians, Tiffany Christensen on cello and James Nation on percussion.

CV Rep’s resident set designer Jimmy Cuomo has devised a beautifully spare and dream-like set.  Stuart Fabel’s lighting design augments the narrative beautifully, as does Aalsa Lee’s restrained costume designs.   The overall production design is dreamy and ephemeral, reminiscent of the elusive nature of memory.  Given the lovely musical score and the strong performances by Mr. Daniel and Mr. McEldowney, I found myself quite choked-up several times throughout the evening’s performance.  I attribute this to a little bit of magic being created in a miraculous theatrical space called the Coachella Valley Rep.  Catch the magic this holiday season.  In fact, bring your friends and family.  An evening here is the perfect holiday gift and reminds us that, yes, “it’s a wonderful life, indeed!”

Check out the CV Rep at 69-930 Hwy 111, Suite 116, Rancho Mirage,  CA.  (760) 296-2966; Story of My Life runs from December 4 to December 22, 2013.

Armin’s Grade: A

Theatre Review by Armin Callo, Contributing Editor