'A Christmas Memory'

Show stretches the material's fragile, idiosyncratic charm until it seems wan and generic.

Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory” has been a holiday perennial since its publication in 1956. But its latest translation — to full-length stage musical — stretches the material’s fragile, idiosyncratic charm until it seems wan and generic. Nonetheless, the combination of easy sentiments and Yuletide theme will be enough for unfussy audiences in a holiday mood, assuring this “Memory” a future among smaller regional companies looking for a chamber-scaled, innocuously crowdpleasing, new yet familiar seasonal item.

The sense of deja vu is immediate, commencing with “Adult Buddy” (Joshua Park) doing what voice-of-the-author narrators always do — visit old haunts (where only Cathleen Riddley’s housekeeper Anna Stabler remains) many years later, then standing around to gaze benevolently as scenes from the honeyed past play out in his mind.

That yesteryear is the Depression-era Alabama farmhouse where three unmarried, much older distant cousins were entrusted with his care, far from the unseen, divorcing parents who’d seemingly lost interest in their child.

This isn’t such a bad deal, really, as Buddy (Gabriel Hoffman) has an unlikely but perfect best-pal in Sook (Penny Fuller), who’s many times his age. Their big annual project is making a huge batch of fruitcake then given as Christmas presents — whether desired or not — to favored locals, and mailed to a few celebrities like FDR and Jean Harlow. Inclined to view such activities as silly, if not downright unsuitable, are Jennie (Eileen Barnett) and Seabon (Richard Farrell). She’s a prim milliner, he a “confirmed bachelor” whose alleged ailments (asthma, arthritis etc.) excuse complete indolence.

Act one is concerned mostly with Buddy and Sook’s gathering fruitcake ingredients, including a nervous journey to Haha Jones’ shack for whiskey. After intermission, Buddy’s tomboy neighbor Nelle (Jennifer Chapman) double-dog-dares him to prove he’s visited the fearsome bootlegger, a “midnight adventure” he then re-enacts in exaggerated fashion for Sook. That allows a bit of fantasy flamboyance a la “Tevye’s Dream” that’s the show’s closest thing to a production number, albeit one pallidly staged here. Jennie’s decision that Buddy must attend military school to “become a man,” causing much grief, allows her a big 11th-hour dramatic solo, “You Don’t Know It.”

But these songs (plus OK cakewalk-type ditty “Mighty Sweet Music”) stand out only because they’ve got a shade more oomph and/or dramatic purpose. There’s otherwise little in the anecdotal story to provide natural musical cues. Composer Larry Grossman also provides occasionally ragtime-inflected tunes that make scant impression; Carol Hall’s lyrics are likewise dull and inoffensive. By default, pat sentiments such as “They don’t make Christmas like that anymore!” become the strongest “Memory” has to offer.

Duane Poole’s workmanlike book and Robert Kelley’s atypically bland, modest staging fail to convey the kinship of misfits bonding Buddy and Sook. Though Fuller and junior thesp Hoffman make pleasant company, her Sook isn’t eccentric or childlike enough, nor his rather brash child “sissy” enough, to suggest two frail souls hiding from a harsh outside world. Without that, the uniqueness of Capote’s p.o.v. is lost, replaced by conventional nostalgia for a vague “simpler” past.

Support perfs are adequate, though no one here really gets a chance to shine, vocally or otherwise. Design elements are acceptable but routine.

A Christmas Memory

Lucie Stern Theater, Palo Alto, Calif.; 425 seats; $79 top

Production

A Theaterworks presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Larry Grossman, lyrics by Carol Hall, book by Duane Poole, based on the short story by Truman Capote. Directed by Robert Kelley. Musical director, William Libertore; orchestrations, Steve Orich.

Creative

Sets, Joe Ragey; costumes, Allison Connor; lighting, Steven B. Mannshardt; sound, Cliff Caruthers; production stage manager, Rebecca Muench; casting, Leslie Martinson, Alan Filderman, Julia Flores. Opened, reviewed Dec. 4, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Jennie Faulk - Eileen Barnett
Nelle Harper - Jennifer Chapman,Maggie Brown
Seabon Faulk/Farley Wood/ Haha Jones - Richard Farrell
Sook Faulk - Penny Fuller
Buddy - Gabriel Hoffman,Peter Heintz
Adult Buddy - Joshua Park
Anna Stabler - Cathleen Riddley
Musical numbers: "Prologue/Imagine a Morning," "Alabama Fruitcake," "What's Next?," "This and That," "Mighty Sweet Music," "Detour," "One Small Seed," "Paper and Cotton," "Hunky Dory," "Everything I've Ever Known," "Nothing More Than the Stars," "Buddy's Midnight Adventure," "You Don't Know It," "The Kite Song," "Epilogue."

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