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07 Dec 2013

A Theatric Eulogy: 'The Story of My Life' Is a Poignant Holiday-Themed Musical

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Craig McEldowney and Chris Daniel star in The Story of My Life. Craig McEldowney and Chris Daniel star in The Story of My Life.

We all secretly hope that people say nice things about us after we die. In The Story of My Life, currently playing at Coachella Valley Repertory in Rancho Mirage, it’s a promise 12-year-old Alvin and Thomas make to each other (heard in voiceover) as the play opens.

Fast-forward 23 years: Tom, now a professional writer, is struggling to come up with an appropriate eulogy for Alvin, who has committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. It might seem daunting to base an entire holiday-related musical around a eulogy, but it actually works quite well.

Tom begins sharing anecdotes about his lifelong buddy, who now appears as a ghost. We learn that the friendship began thanks to Tom’s fascination with the bookstore run by Alvin’s father. Brian Hill’s book includes several references to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (a movie the boys watch often), including a flashback with the two friends making snow angels. Some manly roughhousing takes place as Tom heads off to college, leading to Alvin kissing Tom on the neck—a major turning point. Has Alvin always had romantic feelings for Tom? Young Alvin’s decision to wear his mother’s robe to school every Halloween following her death on his sixth birthday might have been a clue. 

The friends grow apart as Alvin stays behind in their small town to take over the bookstore after his father’s death; meanwhile, Tom seeks his fortune in the literary world. It’s natural for childhood friendships to diminish in intensity and sometimes fade away as we reach adulthood. Happy with his career and his girlfriend, Tom accepts this turn of events, while Alvin can’t seem to let go of the past. It’s unclear how much this factored into Alvin’s tragic demise.

As Tom finally stops looking for the “why” of Alvin’s death and instead focuses on celebrating the joy of their long friendship, his writer’s block begins to melt away—and the eulogy takes form.

Though it earned four 2009 Drama Desk Award nominations—Outstanding Music (Neil Bartram), Outstanding Lyrics (Bartram), Outstanding Book (Hill) and Outstanding Musical—The Story of My Life closed on Broadway after just five regular performances. Perhaps New York audiences used to theatrical extravaganzas could not appreciate its minimalism.

The actors in CV Rep’s production, Chris Daniel (Alvin) and Craig McEldowney (Tom), deliver superb, emotionally nuanced performances. Both handle the demanding score and intricate lyrics with great skill. McEldowney’s soaring tenor is particularly impressive. Kudos go to musical director Scott Storr for his orchestration with piano, cello and percussion. It works perfectly in CV Rep’s intimate theater. The only downside: While Bartram’s songs are very pretty, they occasionally sound a bit repetitive.

The simple, all-white set works quite well, with the library behind Tom representing the thousands of stories in his mind. Director Ron Celona succeeds in keeping the two actors moving around just enough to keep things interesting.

As another year comes to an end, we often become nostalgic for the old days and for friendships that have become only memories. CV Rep’s touching production of The Story of My Life reminds us that as we get swept up in the holiday hustle and bustle, it may be more important than we realize to take a moment to answer those Christmas cards from old friends.

The Story of My Life is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $40. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

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