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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Story of My Life
Delaware Theatre Company


Rob McClure and Ben Dibble
The Story of My Life is a musical that has a lot of appeal, but also a lot of flaws. Its story of the ups and downs of a friendship over several decades seems too familiar at times, and its score doesn't always seem original either. Yet The Story of My Life also has a sweetness and sincerity that makes it easy to fall for. And Delaware Theatre Company's new production is extremely engaging, thanks largely to rich and dynamic performances by Ben Dibble and Rob McClure.

The Story of My Life, which had a five-performance (not counting previews) Broadway run in 2009, is about Thomas (Dibble) and Alvin (McClure), best friends for whom every day of childhood was an adventure. Thomas grows up to become an author, leaving their small town behind for the lights of New York and the glamour of literary fame. But Alvin stays behind, even bypassing a college education in order to run his family business. In a way, Alvin never grows up—he remains somewhat juvenile, and his resolute eccentricity embarrasses the self-consciously mature Thomas. Thomas begins to distance himself from his old friend, all the while avoiding the fact that his most successful fiction is based on events from Alvin's life. But we know that Thomas will eventually have to face up to the damage he's done—and we know that because the show opens with Thomas writing Alvin's eulogy.

Brian Hill's book delineates the two characters well and establishes a mellow, nostalgic tone early on. But it's also mawkish at times, and there's no conflict between the two characters until about halfway through the 90-minute show. The story has few surprises, and the stakes never seem especially high. Meanwhile, Neil Bartram's songs are filled with small pleasures: "Mrs. Remington," about a grade school teacher who torments the boys, is full of witty and finely detailed lyrics, while "Angels in the Snow" has a gorgeous melody. Yet too much of the score seems like secondhand Stephen Sondheim. The phrase "Write what you know" appears several times during the show, each time accompanied by a dissonant musical motif; both the music and its message about artistry are too reminiscent of passages from Sunday in the Park with George. "You're Amazing, Tom," in which Alvin offers sarcastic, staccato commentary while Thomas accepts an award, echoes musical and thematic elements from Merrily We Roll Along. And Sondheim isn't the only Broadway composer who's evoked here: "The Butterfly," a fable set to a soaring melody, is a rewrite of "Meadowlark" from Stephen Schwartz's The Baker's Wife. Bartram's score works better when the songwriter leaves his influences behind and shows off his ability to tell a fully developed story within a single song, as in the rambunctious "The Greatest Gift" and the stark and affecting "I Like It Here."

Despite the show's faults, director Bud Martin's production creates an inviting sense of warmth and intimacy. Dirk Durossette's all-white set is simple without being bland or chilly, and the elegant orchestrations emphasize cello and clarinet (Tom Fosnocht conducts the six-piece offstage band). And the actors are terrific: Dibble's genteel severity contrasts well with McClure's anxious vulnerability. Even their appearances suit their characters: McClure's suspenders and unruly mop of hair make him look boyish in comparison to the slick-haired, buttoned-up Dibble. (Wade Laboissonniere provided the costumes.) And both actors sing superbly, with endearing openness and power.

The Story of My Life is too derivative to be fully satisfying, but Delaware Theatre Company's production transcends most of the show's limitations. Thanks to the winning performances and Martin's gentle approach, you'll cherish the moments of beauty in this imperfect but lovely musical.

The Story of My Life runs through December 22, 2013, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. Tickets are $35-$50, with discounts for seniors, students and military, and are available by calling the box office at 302-594-1100, online at www.DelawareTheatre.org, or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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