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Chicago by John Olson

The Story of My Life
Chicago Muse Theater at the Victory Gardens Biograph

The Story of My Life
Davis Duffield and Jack Noseworthy
The new company behind this restaging of the two-man musical that ran briefly on Broadway in 2009 works from a most unusual premise. Their audiences—rather than an artistic director—will choose the musicals the company will stage. Last summer, an invited initial panel of some 50 people reviewed 12 new musicals and voted to produce The Story of My Life—a surprising and fascinating choice given that musical's quick demise on Broadway.  Seeing it on stage at the Victory Gardens Biograph helped to explain both its failure on Broadway and the appeal it held to the Chicago Muse Theater review committee.  Not only is it a chamber musical and character-focused, without production values like choreography or elaborate visuals that are expected of a Broadway production, but it's an emotionally challenging piece that may strike some painful nerves in audiences.

I wasn't exactly prepared for the piece by its title. It's not the story of a life, but of a lifelong friendship—a friendship more complicated and one-sided than you might expect upon reading this production's advertising theme-line: "the journey begins with one true friend." The friends are Thomas (Jack Noseworthy) and Alvin (Davis Duffield). Thomas is the more confident and socially adept one. Alvin's more introverted, less socially cool and only comfortable around Thomas. Thomas understands Alvin, though, and they share a certain sensitivity to things, like the interaction of nature with man and belief in the general goodness of the world. Thomas, though, can express these thoughts more confidently than Alvin. Thomas uses the ideas in building a successful career as a writer while Alvin stays home to run the bookstore owned by his ailing widower father. While Thomas's success would not have been possible without Alvin's perceptiveness and his willingness to share his ideas with Thomas, Alvin would never have been able to market his ideas. Thomas's voice becomes the one that is heard by the public while Alvin remains cloistered in the bookstore.

As Thomas leaves their little town for college and career, the contact between the two becomes less frequent and the relationship begins to favors Thomas. Thomas has the fame, the money, and at times the women, while Alvin remains pretty much a loner. The story of their friendship is told in flashback by Thomas, who is struggling to write a eulogy for Alvin, who has died of causes the authors intentionally keep vague.  Thus, as bookwriter Brian Hill makes clear late in the piece, the portrait of the two men is of necessity entirely from Thomas's perspective. Although a ghostly Alvin "returns" to help Thomas with the eulogy, the ghost is shown to be made of Thomas's inexact memories and incomplete knowledge of Alvin's life. Through the process, Thomas comes to realize how selfish and frequently insensitive he had been to his late friend. I wonder I how many audiences might not be similarly troubled. There's a particularly gut-wrenching moment about 2/3 of the way through the musical when Thomas rescinds an invitation for Alvin to visit him in "the city" for the holidays—a visit Alvin was anticipating as potentially life-altering.

The music and lyrics by Neil Bartram owe a debt to Sondheim's Passion. Like the music in Sondheim's piece, there are few if any traditionally structured songs or melodies. (In fact, the program lists no musical numbers or song titles.) Bartram's lovely if somewhat free-form music flows from the dialogue and leaves few opportunities for audience applause, though the second-to-last number, "This is It," seems that it could stand on its own outside the show.

The Story of My Life is again directed by Richard Maltby Jr., who had the same duties on the Broadway production. He makes great use of two terrific Broadway performers: Jack Noseworthy (Sweet Smell of Success and Jerome Robbins' Broadway) and Davis Duffield (Cyrano de Bergerac). Noseworthy shows us a believable connection with Alvin in a person who is much slicker and tougher than Alvin. Noseworthy has a powerful and pitch-perfect voice—if anything, it might be a little more than is required for this gently little piece—but it's an amazing instrument nonetheless. Duffield finds a way to play Alvin that's empathetic without being pathetic and has a pleasing singing voice with its own personality.  The surreal set by Robert Kovach is a multitude of stacks of books—representing all the ideas in Thomas's head as well as the inventory in Alvin's store. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations have been effectively reduced for a three-piece ensemble of piano, woodwinds and cello under the direction of Roberta Duchak.

Chicago Muse Executive Director Sean Cercone told me Maltby and the authors made revisions to the piece for this production, and while the piece still has some issues—for one, it annoyingly makes references to Frank Capra's film It's a Wonderful Life seemingly every 60 seconds—its apparent honesty and emotional risk-taking make it quite haunting. Its ultimate message—that people have an impact on the world even if they are never recognized or rewarded for their contributions—is an uplifting one and reason enough to take part in this journey.

The Story of My Life will run through January 2, 2011, at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater 2433 North Lincoln Avenue Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.chicagomuse.org/now-playing.


Photo: Brett Beiner

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-- John Olson



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