Neil Bartram and Brian Hill’s new musical “The Story of My Life” demonstrates that the team have enormous talent when it comes to writing individual songs and scenes. The jury is still out, however, when it comes to deciding if they can deliver a complete show, especially in light of the misconceived production Michael Bush has mounted at CanStage.
Bartram and Hill, originally from Toronto, have been working in Manhattan since 2001, taking part in BMI workshops and numerous musical theater festivals and generating good buzz about their work.
The Manhattan Theater Club’s Bush heard a song from “The Story of My Life” at one of these presentations and immediately decided he had to become involved with the show. When the author’s hometown regional, CanStage, offered to produce the preem, Bush came along as part of the package.
The musical is set in a small town named Angel Falls, but it really ought to Bedford Falls, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” being the work’s spiritual parent. Not only are the tone and theme similar, but we get numerous allusions to the film throughout.
In fact, the trigger for the whole work is the pivotal scene of Capra’s film taken to a tragic conclusion. Whereas George Bailey was saved from leaping off a bridge to his death by the angel Clarence, no such blessed helper came to the rescue of Alvin (Jeffrey Kuhn) when he actually made the plunge.
And so Thomas (Brent Carver), his best friend since first grade from whom he’s been estranged for the past decade, comes back to deliver the eulogy. As the show proceeds in a series of flashbacks, we find out what drew them together, what forced them apart and what may have caused Alvin to kill himself.
Some of Hill’s dramaturgy in the early part of the show is tooth-achingly sweet as the “eccentric” Alvin dresses up like his dead mother on Halloween, finds fey fascination in every quirk of nature and makes angels in the snow with his best friend every Christmas Eve.
What saves these scenes are the often touching songs and Kuhn’s deliciously extroverted perf. Like an even more dysfunctional Charlie Brown, he radiates joy, fear, exaltation and terror all in one number, such as “Mrs. Remington,” his love letter to an understanding teacher. Kuhn is a truly ingratiating talent.
Opposite to him in every way is Carver’s intense, brooding Thomas. Struggling to find himself as a writer and then breaking away from his home and friends as soon as he begins to make it big, Carver is excellent at capturing the mixed messages Thomas sends to the world. “I’m OK, but not really,” seems to be coming from his head like a giant cartoon bubble.
He’s at his best in a song called “I Like It Here,” where he raves about a restaurant to his fiancee while cautiously putting their marriage on hold.
Hill’s book acquires some grit near the end, when we realize that what drives the two friends apart is the fact that Thomas has appropriated Alvin’s life to create his award-winning stories, never acknowledging the debt.
Yet that twist comes after more than an hour in which the cutesy and the coy often are allowed far too much sway. Blame director Bush for pushing those qualities to the front in a snow-filled set by Glenn Davidson that looks like every Hallmark card you’ve ever opened and promptly thrown away. Also, he’s staged things in a repetitious fashion that lets aud see every move coming from a mile away.
Bartram’s orchestrations of his own music are a bit on the candy-floss side, but well-played by a piano-cello-woodwinds combo led with distinction by Marek Norman.
There seems to be a good show inside “The Story of My Life,” struggling to get out from under all the treacle, but it would need a lot of rewriting and sharper direction to acquire the shape it needs. Right now, Bartram and Hill remain a talented duo in search of the right work to launch them.