A correction was made to this article on Oct. 28, 2003.
Tender, beautifully shaded performance from John Cullum notwithstanding, this arch chamber musical is too precious to please anyone but its self-satisfied creators. And whatever could they have been thinking of, airing the woozy sentiments of this wispy memory play through a countrified musical idiom that sounds like old boots shuffling through the last waltz at a barn dance?
Cullum (“Shenandoah,” “Urinetown”) at least has the acting bones to dignify his sentimental role of an old man who comes home to confront the ghosts of his troubled childhood before he dies. The sad and mellow beauty of perf’s weatherbeaten face and torn-up tenor initially earn sympathy for title character, who relives the days of his youth when he found shelter in the attic of a Denver whorehouse after his father went to jail and his mother took to the streets.
Interest wanes fast once Cullum teams up for stylized re-plays of Wilder’s past with Jeremiah Miller, eager and energetic (but emotionally uninflected) as his 12-year-old self, and Lacey Kohl, tripling (nicely, but showing the effort it takes) as the mother he lost, the sensual young prostitute to whom he transfers his affection, and a little girl who symbolizes his ideal love.
G.W. Mercier softens the Depression-era landscape of memories with his dreamy set of a whitewashed bedroom with a big brass bed and a window open to the night sky. Fluidly lighted by Jane Cox, the free-flowing space keeps shifting its dimensions, reflecting the narrator’s state of mind as he wanders through all the empty houses of his lonely childhood.
Within the context of this dreamscape, the score is downright jarring. Even as it strains for a kind of classical abstraction, the music (by stalwart members of the venerable Red Clay Ramblers) retains a lusty, earthy quality, conveying the subversive message that it would rather knock off the poetry and kick ass and dance. But while the music is merely off the aesthetic track, the lyrics — a poetic mish-mash of a young boy’s immature emotions and an old man’s inarticulate sorrow — carry the firm conviction of their pretentiousness. Cullum survives by concentrating on Old Wilder’s pain as he relives his memories of spending Christmas at the orphanage, visiting his father in jail, hunting the streets for his mother, and falling in love with the young prostitute who discovered him in her attic. But that dignity is tough to maintain when you’re delivering a line about looking for “a moon-pail full of love” or wrestling with a dopey lyric like “Loneliness is automatic / When you live in an attic.”
The lyrics are at least consistent with Erin Cressida Wilson’s self-infatuated narrative style, which inflates commonplace coming-of-age events (like a boy’s first wet dream) into quasi-operatic scenes that have director Lisa Portes scrambling for showy visual effects. With characters constantly leaping time frames and morphing into other characters, the actors are hard pressed to maintain clarity and precision of performance. That they survive the production’s affectations is some kinda miracle.