A Christmas Memory
NY Theater Review by Peter Haas
It’s humorous and heartwarming, sweet and sophisticated, propelled in part by some dozen songs that are merry and moving. It has just made its New York debut – and it’s bound to become a Christmastime theater classic. It’s “A Christmas Memory,” a new musical based on the short story by Truman Capote, and produced and performed with a clarity that lets its talents – both on and off stage – shine through.
With a book by Duane Poole, music by Larry Grossman and lyrics by Carol Hall, “A Christmas Memory” brings a New York writer back to the Depression-era Alabama house where he was a boy. He’s there as Adult Buddy, observing himself as Young Buddy, revisiting, and sometimes interacting with, his three grown cousins, the cook and the neighbors who affected his life.
Produced by the Irish Repertory Theater, “A Christmas Memory” is presented in the group’s temporary space, the DR2 Theatre off Union Square. The stage is tiny, which, in fact, contributes to the production’s intimacy and imaginative staging: the set, the family kitchen, is simply a table and chairs; the outdoors are represented by a tree-shaped wooden structure at the rear of the stage (scenic design James Noone), and the actors, who are not performing a particular scene or song, sit quietly on chairs or change their costumes (by David Toser) at the darkened sides of the stage. Reality is suspended.
But not the fun. One focal point of the plot is Cousin Sook’s endeavor to bake her “World Famous Christmas Fruitcake” (laced with whisky), one of which is to be mailed to the nation’s new First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Another aspect is the friendship of young Buddy with his neighbor, the tomboy Nellie Harper (patterned after Capote’s real-life neighbor at the time, author Harper Lee). Still another sub-plot centers around young Buddy’s future once the family home is sold. The show’s book writer, Duane Poole, skillfully weaves these several elements together, for a cohesive story line.
As directed by Charlotte Moore, the cast rings true from start to finish: the smooth voiced Ashley Robinson as Adult Bobby, Silvano Spagnuolo acting and singing as Young Buddy; Virginia Ann Woodruff as Anna, the warm-hearted servant with a vaudeville streak; Nancy Hess, making the stern and stiff cousin Jennie believably human; Samuel Cohen morphing through four different roles; the young, spirited Taylor Richardson as Nellie; and, heading the cast as aunt Sook Faulk, the endearing and wonderful Alice Ripley. Also on stage, playing Queenie, the family dog: Walter O’Reilly, a terrier of quiet talents.
To this reviewer, the major stars of the production were the songs: some fourteen numbers, ranging from solos to group pieces, in moods from ruminative to rejoicing (“Alabama Fruitcake,” “Detour,” “Mighty Sweet Music,” “Paper and Cotton,” “Buddy’s Midnight Adventure,” “The Kite Song” ) and, beneath their period style and seeming simplicity, elegant and moving. The songs drive the show, heighten its emotional punch, and bring refreshing changes of pace to the proceedings.
Other contributors of note include Micah Young, musical director; Barry McNabb, choreographer, and Steve Orich, orchestrator.
The show opened December 4 and runs through January 4—to return, one hopes, again and again for years to come. www.IrishRep.org DR2 Theatre, 102 East 15th St., NYC
*Photo: Carol Rosegg