When is the last time you heard “They don’t make Christmas like that anymore!”? This holiday season just got a whole lot merrier in Southern California as the landmark “Laguna Playhouse” in Laguna Beach California celebrates the regional debut of the new musical “A Christmas Memory” based on the Short Autobiographical Story by Truman Capote. Having begun previews on Tuesday, December 3 the show opened on Saturday, December 7th where it will run through Sunday, December 29, 2013.
Nick De Gruccio’s direction infuses every action with an expressive, near-poetic style, which makes even the most everyday occurrences depicted deeply personal. The music is by Larry Grossman who has worked his melodic magic for such previous theatrical favorites as “Minnie’s Boys” and “Snoopy, The Musical”; lyrics here are by Carol Hall, herself known for her award-winning score to “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas”. Given the nature of the source material, Duane Poole’s book saves most of the drama for the second act; however, it is full of folksy wisdom and down-home chuckles with references that may not initially register, but when later recalled truly make this one a little diamond of a show! Halls lyrics compliment his text (“Heaven’s not a shiny star, Heaven’s things as they are”.) Happily too, both, we’re told, rely heavily on Capote’s authentic words and phrases lending the proceedings a greater warmth and honesty. Grossman’s music is lyrical and sweet with a few terrific ‘patter’ songs thrown in; his haunting harmonies (especially during the prologue and finale) are frequently evocative of a half recalled memory, often utilizing only one or two instruments such as the simple strains of a violin or piano.
Performed sans overture and told almost completely in flashback, “A Christmas Memory” paints a delicate portrait of an unforgettable friendship. In rural Alabama, 1933 young Buddy is being raised by his mother’s three eccentric cousins having essentially been abandoned by both his parents when, after their divorce, each went on to seek separate—and unencumbered–lives. He is closest to his childlike elderly cousin Sook, a woman, we learn, who has never been to a restaurant, never seen a movie. (“I’m old and funny” she tells him sadly; “Not funny—Fun” he reassures her.) For Buddy and Sook, whenever December rolls around, it’s “Fruitcake weather”, so as Christmas nears, the pair gather ingredients for their “greatest annual undertaking”, the baking of their “Alabama fruitcakes” to serve as gifts for those who’ve had an impact on their lives over the past year. (That few may appreciate their efforts is entirely inconsequential!)
It’s the height of prohibition to boot, and, as one of the key elements to make their recipe complete is whisky, the intrepid duo set about to find the local moonshiner—a figure of near legendary ferocity and terrifying renown called “Ha-Ha Jones”, operator of the local juke-joint, to procure some. This doesn’t set well with oldest cousin Jennie—a tightly wound (for Alabama) spinster of whom one character observes, “She saw people as either one thing or the other with no point in between.” To add fuel to the fire, the postman ‘informs’ her “Folks have been talkin’—just to pass the time mind you–” about the effect such an off-beat friendship might have on a growing boy’s character. This gets her thinking a definite separation via a stint in military school just might be the thing for Buddy. Being that it’s based on a genuine memory, the story foregoes a traditional “happy” ending in favor of a real, more bittersweet conclusion instead. This is wonderfully symbolized in a moment when, on Christmas day Buddy and Sook fly the kites they gave each other. During a touching number (appropriately titled “The Kite Song”,) they cut their kites loose, in effect, setting them and one another free.
Featuring two participants in The Laguna Playhouse’s “Youth Theater Repertory” program, the cast of seven form a surprisingly strong ensemble. As the older Buddy from whose viewpoint everything is seen, Ciaran McCarthy is onstage just about every moment, as memory and the present exist side by side thanks to De Gruccio’s often inspired staging. “Yesterday was simple, easy and clear” Buddy–the man, recalls upon returning to the house he shared for a time with his cousins. Now a successful author, he’s burdened by the hurly-burley of big city life and the stresses success can bring (“when you’re only as good as your last effort.”) McCarthy most notably hits pay-dirt with his numbers “Imagine A Morning” and the act one closer, “Paper and Cotton”, and while he has a voice more than big enough to fill the Laguna Playhouse’s ample 420 seat auditorium, it’s the quieter, more concentrated moments when he really shines, such as in the show’s poignant finale. Likewise, Marsha Waterbury is delightful as Sook—the good-hearted child-woman Buddy so depends on for his emotional connection to the world. Immediately she provides the sense that here is someone who not only needs protecting, but deserves it as well. Tracy Lore is Jennie, her stern oldest sister who, we learn in her second act solo “You Don’t Know It”, gave up any chance of personal happiness to look after her younger siblings, with the result being the development of a sharp ‘edge’ to her slightly damaged psyche. Her greatest fear for Buddy is that he’ll grow up ‘soft” which doesn’t play well in a ‘hard world’. At its center though, young William Spangler is particularly engaging throughout as the younger Buddy. His best moments (and there are numerous) include “Alabama Fruitcake”, “One Small Seed” and the second act’s “No Tellin’”.
Outstanding support is also offered by Tom Shelton who does triple duty, appearing vastly different and nearly unrecognizable each time as Buddy’s cousin Seabon—a confirmed bachelor and all around hypochondriac; Farley Wood –the gossipy letter carrier and the fittingly fearsome bootlegger “Ha-Ha Jones”. Amber Mercomes too, gives great service to the role of Anna Stabler—the family’s loyal and patient neighbor and laundress. She succeeds in what might easily be discounted as just another ‘supporting’ part, instead giving the show some bona-fide spark and pizzazz with her songs “Detour’ and “Mighty Sweet Music”. Siena Yusi also does a laudable job as the tomboy Nelle Harper—a lass who uses bullying to hide what might actually be a school-girl crush on Buddy. Rounding out the cast are “Pickle” and “Herbie”–the dogs who alternate portraying Sook’s beloved pet, “Queenie”.
An intimate production, large on good old-fashioned family-friendly charm “A Christmas Memory” is a beautiful story, beautifully told—a sublime character study that makes the perfect gift to give to yourself and those you love this holiday season. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. There will be additional performances on Sunday, December 15 at 7pm, Thursday, December 19 at 2pm, Monday, December 23 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, December 29 at 7:00pm, with special holiday performances on Tuesday, December 24 at 4:00pm and Thursday, December 26 at 2pm. Tickets can be purchased online at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or by calling (949) 497-ARTS (2787). (Special student rush discounts are available at the Box Office, while Group discounts are available by calling 949-497-2787 ext. 229.) The Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach Ca. The box office is open Mondays–Sundays: noon to 5pm (open until 7:30pm on performance days). For more information visit: www.lagunaplayhouse.com .
Production Stills By Ed Krieger Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) Special Thanks–And “Happy Holidays”– To David Elzer At Demand PR, Karen Wood (Executive Director Of The Laguna Playhouse) And To The Cast & Crew Of “A Christmas Memory” For Making This Story Possible.