Come Christmas every year, new offerings are presented with the hope they'll become holiday perennials. In 2010 TheatreWorks Silicon Valley launched a musical adaptation of Truman Capote's autobiographical short story, A Christmas Memory, adapted by Duane Poole with songs by lyricist Carol Hall and music by composer Larry Grossman.
Predicting that this one will inevitably reach the ranks of properties people want to see again and again is a chancy undertaking, but it's less chancy to say it deserves the exalted status -- certainly if a prognosticator goes by the DR2 incarnation, helmed by Irish Repertory Theatre artistic director Charlotte Moore during the company's year away from their under-renovation home a few blocks north.
Remembering his youth growing up with distant Alabama cousins -- and most particularly, his 60-ish cousin Sook Faulk (Alice Ripley) -- Capote focuses on the Christmas season of 1933. For Sook and him, the holiday would always begin when she'd wake up one day to declare it was fruitcake-preparing time.
That's when they'd run up 30 or so fruitcakes to send to whomever they considered their friends. Among those near and far was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who'd responded with a thank-you note they cherish. Sook even wonders if Eleanor will serve it to guests at Christmas dinner.
The devoted pair do their happy chores in a household presided over by relatives less devoted to Capote, whom Sook calls Buddy in memory of a childhood friend who'd died young. (Young Buddy is played by Silvano Spagnuolo, adult Buddy by Ashley Robinson.) To Join them, librettist Poole introduces cousins Seabon Faulk (Samuel Cohen) and Jennie Faulk (Nancy Hess) as well as family retainer Anna Stabler (Virginia Anne Woodruff) and Queenie the dog (no program credit for Queenie). He also brings on several other characters who are less well covered in Capote's original, the most prominent being young friend Nelle Harper (Taylor Richardson).
Capote writes of those times in a sentimentally-bittersweet mode. Since this is a memoir, he doesn't demand conventional suspense. Midway through the gabby action, Jennie, who's worried that Buddy isn't getting the upbringing a boy needs, raises the necessity of sending her young cousin to a military academy. Whether Seabon and she will follow through on what Buddy perceives as a threat is the only tension provided in the plot, but even that is smoothed over before curtain.
Tunesmiths Grossman and Hall aren't concerned with those aspects, either. Their aim is to write a group of tuneful songs, and they achieve the goal admirably. Perhaps the best in a strong score is "Mighty Sweet Music," in which the entire cast, choreographed by Bruce McNabb, gets to show ukulele abilities. In "Cotton and Paper," Hall and Grossman offer a new Christmas song about tree decorations deserving of a long future. That one and all the others feature veteran Hall's way with an evocatively folksy lyric and Grossman's way with a catchy melody. On all the numbers, Micah Young at the piano, John DiPinto at the synthesizer and Ed Shea on percussion keep things bright and breezy.
Also bright and breezy are each of the cast members, led by Ripley, who doesn't play Sook quite as child-like as Capote describes her but who nevertheless dispenses Sook's abundant homilies with winning sincerity. Spagnuolo is a charming young Buddy, and Robinson an appealingly nostalgic adult Buddy, returning to the Faulk home in 1955. Woodruff gets mileage from her hot "Detour" turn, and the others are all way up to snuff.
The liveliest Christmas Memory scene occurs when, in a celebratory mood, Sook offers Buddy some whiskey, and they both take several small sips. The incipient inebriation renders them giddy enough to bring Seabon and Jennie into the kitchen. They're horrified at what they find, and to Buddy's chagrin, military school comes up again as an likely option.
As played, Sook and Buddy's cutting loose is meant to be cute. And it is, as long as anyone knowing the toll alcoholism took on the adult Capote doesn't fix on it. Those who do might decide that Sook's innocent-enough notion of fun is actually as worrying as Seabon and Jennie declare it. What might have changed for Capote if he'd never had those first tastes? Just a thought.
There's another foreshadowing Christmas Memory development that's much less disturbing. Notice the name Nelle Harper. As a Christmas gift, Buddy gives her a notebook and a pencil. When he does, she proclaims him the writer and not her, but she does ponder the possibilities. Anything ring a bell?
Of course, what Poole has in mind is Capote's well-known childhood friendship with Harper Lee. Nelle Harper? Harper Lee? Get it? Here's a dramatic sequence wherein Truman Capote sets Harper Lee on the way toward that classic for all seasons, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee has always acknowledged Capote's encouragement, but did he ever really give her a notebook-and-pencil gift? Wouldn't that be nice to know?
Whether he did or didn't, the touching scene is simply another reason why kids from 5 to 95 should consider lining up for A Christmas Memory.