Holiday entertainment to which you can bring the whole family (its protagonist appears to be about 10 years old) which is neither preachy, saccharine, nor overly familiar is a find. This latest iteration of Truman Capote’s semi-autobiographical, 1956 memoir, is fresh, captivating, skillfully written, and splendidly produced.
A Christmas Memory has twice been adapted for television, broadcast on NPR radio, released as a CD, theatrically staged as a musical (by different authors), and presented as an opera. This 2010 version by Broadway veterans captures the touching story with vibrancy and finesse. Its book flows organically. Entertaining musical numbers carry and illuminate narrative.
Adult Buddy (Ashley Robinson) has returned to 1955 Alabama after many alienated years of boarding school and summer camp. He’s inherited the family home. Encountering beloved household help, Anna (Virginia Ann Woodruff), still on premises, the young man recalls childhood Christmases and his extraordinary bond with cousin Sook Faulk (Alice Ripley), a much older, but childlike female cousin who “never saw a movie, ate in a restaurant, or let a dog go hungry.” Adult Buddy acts as narrator, stepping fluidly from present to past (unseen), as we observe a single, pivotal holiday unfold.
It’s 1933. Buddy (Silvano Spagnuolo) and Sook pool meager earnings from schemes like selling preserves and creating a freak museum (featuring an aberrant chicken) in order to buy ingredients for Christmas’s traditional “Alabama Fruitcake.” Last year, they baked and gifted 25, including one sent to Jean Harlow (“not even a thank you card”) and one to the President; this year there’ll be 31. A clandestine visit to the disreputable Haha Jones (Samuel Cohen) to secure whiskey (with their last $1.92) is necessary. (mercurial Cohen also plays a genial mailman named Farley.)
The low income household additionally consists of Jennie Faulk (Nancy Hess) and her brother Seabon (Samuel Cohen) who took Buddy in when his parents acrimoniously divorced. Jennie is the stern breadwinner (she has a shop); Seabon a freeloading hypochondriac. Neighbor and friendly antagonist, Nelie Harper (Taylor Richardson), who is Buddy’s age, completes the cast.
Adult Buddy is having difficulty starting his second book. Feeling both loss and lost, he relives the loving period spent under Sook’s imaginative wing and, in doing so, finds not only material for his writing, but a sense of belonging. Almost every family member has an exposition song, so we learn who made up Buddy’s world. Interaction with our hero is charming and realistic. There are adventures to be had, tall tales to be told “Buddy’s Midnight Adventure,” rules to break, things to make by hand (Norman Rockwell-like Christmas tree ornaments), and blessings to be discovered despite hardship “Nothing More Than Stars.” Even when Buddy is sent away, explanation is clear and compassionate.
Songs are wonderfully varied and all couched in the musical idiom of the period, many jaunty, honky-tonk or ragtime (Musical Direction Micah Young; evocative Orchestrations-Steve Orich) “Mighty Sweet Music,” a ukulele number featuring the entire cast, is one of several that are infectiously joyful. When characters dance together, they do so with steps they might make up, rather than those that look stage choreographed. (Bravo Choreographer Barry McNabb)
Director Charlotte Moore has done an all round terrific job. Each role offers personality; all actors have credible southern accents. Staging is sympathetic and fun, juxtaposition of old and young Buddy particularly effective; pacing couldn’t be better.
The uniformly good cast includes standouts:
Ashley Robinson’s Adult Buddy is immensely appealing. The actor draws us in from the get-go with an understated, yet well manifest portrayal. Robinson reflects young Buddy’s emotions with unobtrusive honesty whether participating in a scene or just watching. We feel visceral connection, palpable yearning. A good singing voice is the topper.
Alice Ripley’s personification of Sook Faulk has the grace and openness of an innocent. Simplistic dialogue feels natural when she emits it. Expression, whether enthusiastic or, eventually, fearful appears instinctive- big enough to communicate depth but never with a need to prove. Ripley’s musical numbers with young Buddy are delightful. She brings lightness and gravitas to the role which showcases authenticity.
Fifth grader, Silvano Spagnuolo (young Buddy) is making his auspicious Off Broadway debut with this play. He sings, dances, and acts without affectation despite a slightly stylized manner. The actor’s chemistry with Ripley is wonderful. He appears to genuinely enjoy Sook and Buddy’s escapades and to trust in her completely without judgment.
James Noone’s Scenic Design manages to be homey as well as graphic. Lovely choices include a door in the wood-slatted tree that opens to indicate Nelie’s being up there, kites flown over our heads into the distance, and a fir that revolves to display hand crafted ornaments.
Brian Nason’s Lighting Design works well on Noone’s pale wood.
Costume Design by David Toser leaves everyone looking exactly right.
The unobserved orchestra is first rate.
Photos by Bill Coyle
Opening: Ashley Robinson, Silvano Spagnuolo, Alice Ripley
1. Alice Ripley, Virginia Ann Woodruff, Samuel Cohen, Ashley Robinson, Silvano Spagnuolo, Nancy Hess
2. Ashley Robinson, Silvano Spagnuolo, Alice Ripley
3. Ashley Robinson, Silvano Spagnuolo, Alice Ripley
4. Silvano Spagnuolo, Alice Ripley; The original book
A Christmas Memory
Based on the short story by Truman Capote
Book by Duane Poole
Music by Larry Grossman
Lyrics by Carol Hall
Directed by Charlotte Moore
The Orchestra: Micah Young-piano, John DiPinto-synth, Ed Shea-percussion
The Irish Repertory Company
In their new, temporary home: DR2 Theater 102 East 15th St.
Through January 4, 2015