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The Memory Show

Memories are strange things; they can be comforting or haunting, they get colored with years and changes in perspective. And sometimes they are elusive or—frighteningly, frustratingly—start to slip away. Here's the cast album of a show all about that. It's one I saw several years ago in an early barebones presentation, and, yes, the memory of it stayed with me. Real strong painful memories—and strong fictional presentations about them—have a way of doing that.


Yellow Sound Label

What can you say about a musical in which a nice Jewish girl sings a song to a toilet? When it comes as respite in a highly emotional, lonely, and heartbreaking show, there isn't much to say except maybe "be prepared to cry." The Memory Show, a two-character musical about a daughter coming home to take care of her mother who is suffering from dementia would be agonizing or, dare I say, tedious if it weren't so delicately and deftly written and performed with empathy and passion. The old lesson that a story with well-drawn specificity can feel general in its appeal is quite true here. While heartbreaking and harrowing, an emotional train wreck we can't look away from, the sadness has a kind of dignity and challenge.

Trying to make peace, power-struggling to get along and to accept the unpleasant current realities, the two seesaw through the remnants of a relationship as days mount with evidence of points of no return. The past has its pull and the elephant no longer in the room—the late dad of the family—is rarely far from the center of subject matter. Leslie Kritzer and Catherine Cox as daughter and mother give committed, connected performances as they dance around each other's walls and worries. Zach Redler (music) and Sara Cooper (lyrics, and also wrote the book) have fashioned a fine score that captures the human dynamics and yearnings, the spoken and unspoken feelings ready to burst or be buried. Making neither character heroic or evil, they create two troubled women we can feel for in their struggles to connect and care and understand. Eschewing rages or breast-beating for the most part, they achieve their power and theatrical goals with more pensive and sorrowful moments rather than melodrama. This is not Tennessee Williams territory or the darker shadings of Grey Gardens in its mother/daughter battles, though blame game and shrieking moments of madness and instability, with delusions and decay, are present.

There's a tenderness in the writing and playing (meaning the acting/singing as well as the instrumentalists) that indicates much human compassion, even in the characters' less endearing moments. Some ugly realities are musicalized with a surprising beauty and elegance. Musical director Vadim Feichtner (a proven creative artist) and orchestrator Lynn Shankel shape the music with such deftness and loving care, never milking the sentiment, perhaps knowing the words and subject matter are too potent to water down or require extra emphasis. Instead, they find bittersweet counterpoints and wistful elegance in the accompaniment scored for reeds, cello, violin and Feichtner's piano.

The main metaphor is daughter as apple and mother as its tree source, used in a few musical moments. While it may seem simplistic, it works and feels unpretentious, although the rhyming lines in the references to apple trees, "Why does it feel so fruitless?" and "Why does it feel so rootless?" in the song "I'm Her Apple" might seem to teeter on too-cute word play out of synch with the serious matter. But humor can come in odd ways, noticed or thought of even when seemingly inappropriate. In "David's Smile," there are memories of the man that got away (or was sent away), with some 20/20 hindsight and regret. And "When My Mother Dies" confronts the honesty of mixed feelings about the situation—anticipating and acknowledging both the sense of relief and the impending loss. All these are solos for Leslie Kritzer who is shown to great advantage here as a mature musical comedy actress/singer. Catherine Cox's work proves her to be fearless and feisty, pulling out the stops in what can be a harrowing and haggard performance. There's something daring and yet delightful in her sound that rings through the album. "Unlovable," her rant to her husband as if he's present, is chilling and sad. And when the women team up to argue or try to reach each other, there's electricity.

A million miles away from a feel-good musical, this cast album isn't one to play to perk yourself up with musical theatre pizzazz. But it's a sensitive piece skillfully done that longs for an appreciative audience. The booklet is only available online, but it does include all the lyrics, credits, and many photos. Maybe an unlikely cheering gift for next month's Mother's Day, The Memory Show is one thinking and feeling musical theatre fans will want to know.

- Rob Lester

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