'The Story of My Life'

If the description "an original story about friendship, success and the choices we make at the turning points in our lives" sounds generic, it is.

If the description “an original story about friendship, success and the choices we make at the turning points in our lives” sounds generic, it is. “The Story of My Life” is a singing Hallmark card. The show hijacks Bobby from “Company” and folds him into a labor-of-creativity scenario a la “Sunday in the Park With George,” then pussyfoots coyly around its burning question of unrequited, undeclared love. This flavorless new musical is not exactly terrible, but it’s not terribly interesting, either, which makes you wonder why its producers thought it belonged on Broadway. Whatever the reason, it’s unlikely to be staying long.

Composer-lyricist Neil Bartram wastes no time genuflecting to Stephen Sondheim in the first song, in which bestselling author Thomas Weaver (Will Chase) urges himself to “Write What You Know.” Making good on a childhood promise, Tom is preparing to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of his former friend Alvin Kerby (Malcolm Gets). Tom’s obsession, and the show’s sputtering narrative engine, is to pinpoint what made the friendship dissolve: “When was the instant it splintered and cracked?”

Unfortunately, most of us can get an approximate answer from that first song. “Some lives hurtle forward, and some never budge,” sings Tom. Fame and success took him to the city, while, like George Bailey in his favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Alvin stayed behind and took over his father’s bookstore, clinging to his friendship with increasingly evasive Tom and then waiting in vain for an angel to rescue him.

Whether it’s the intention of book writer Brian Hill or simply an impression stemming from Gets’ performance, the clues all point to Alvin being in love with Tom, and Tom remaining in deep denial until it becomes easier just to sever ties. Alvin never got over his mother’s death and he never got over his best friend’s abandonment.

Even when he’s smiling and laughing and marveling like a borderline idiot at the wonder of life and snow angels, Gets’ Alvin at heart is one of those stereotypical sad-sack gay geeks who should have vanished with the mopey folk-guitar-playing kid with the unfortunate red hair in “Fame.” Alvin is an unapologetic eccentric but he’s also a ridiculous character, and despite the sensitivity and decent singing voice Gets brings to the role, he has nothing plausible to play.

Hill and Bartram return repeatedly to seek out the root of the friends’ undetected crisis, but the show somehow forgets to locate that conflict. We get a recap of the boys bonding at elementary school over their Halloween costumes, a children’s television-type detour into the magical world of books, and a series of episodes that spring out of Alvin’s high-flying imagination and later become the basis for Tom’s stories.

That in itself poses a major problem, since these are supposedly life-changing tales that have inspired a passionate worldwide readership and a string of literary awards, but all the evidence points to a bunch of sugary fables in the “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” mode. It’s even harder to swallow that such poignant material was written by Tom, played by Chase as an unfeeling empty shell of a man.

Again, the actor is not at fault. While nobody besides Dolly Parton or Cio-Cio San should be asked to sing a song about a butterfly, Chase has a warm voice and does as much as is conceivable with a character that barely fleshes out one dimension. He’s a talented performer, but after “Lennon” and “High Fidelity,” his habit of adopting dogs makes you wonder if his agent is sleeping through meetings.

Perhaps the core theme is unacknowledged inspiration or the artist’s responsibility to his muse. Perhaps it’s the complexity of life and how that defies neat encapsulation. Perhaps it’s the power of stories to evolve out of seemingly insignificant details and to endure. But like most everything else, those reflections evaporate as they surface. Even in its most touching moments, this dull, drippy show never makes you care much.

Matching the story and characters, the songs don’t leave any lasting impression. They are pretty, melodic, interchangeable and more than a little derivative. (In addition to Sondheim, Bartram borrows from William Finn and Stephen Schwartz.) And Richard Maltby Jr.’s efficient, anonymous production unfolds on Robert Brill’s white-on-white minimal set as if its innocuous vanilla-ness were a virtue. But quote ads proclaiming “Pleasant!” or “Inoffensive!” don’t sell tickets to Broadway musicals.

The Story of My Life

Booth Theater; 766 seats; $110 top

Production

A Chase Mishkin, Jack M. Dalgleish, Bud Martin, Carole L. Haber presentation, in association with Chunsoo Shin, of a musical in one act with music and lyrics by Neil Bartram, book by Brian Hill. Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. Music direction, David Holcenberg.

Creative

Set, Robert Brill; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Ken Billington, Paul Toben; sound, Peter Fitzgerald, Carl Casella; projections, Dustin O'Neill; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music coordinator, John Miller; production supervisors, Arthur Siccardi, Patrick Sullivan; production stage manager, Bess Marie Glorioso. Opened Feb. 19, 2009. Reviewed Feb. 15. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Thomas Weaver - Will Chase Alvin Kelby - Malcolm Gets
Musical numbers: "Write What You Know," "Mrs. Remington," "The Greatest Gift," "1876," "Normal," "People Carry On," "The Butterfly," "Saying Goodbye" (Part 1), "Here's Where It Begins," "Saying Goodbye" (Part 2), "Independence Day," "Saying Goodbye" (Part 3), "I Like It Here," "You're Amazing, Tom," "Nothing There/Saying Goodbye" (Part 4), "I Didn't See Alvin," "This Is It," "Angels in the Snow."
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