A large ghostly white bookcase, where memories are stored in book upon book upon book, dominates the stage of Broadway's Booth Theatre. On one side stands a white lectern.
We are in eulogy territory, a world of remembrance for "The Story of My Life," a heartfelt little musical that has the courage of its sweet-tempered, low-key convictions.
These days, that's a novelty.
In a Broadway world of big musicals determined to sell themselves, this gentle new show celebrates softly but with an emotional pull that slowly wins you over. Whether that's enough to bring in theatergoers used to more immediate, insistent razzle-dazzle remains to be seen.
"The Story of My Life," which opened Thursday, is a two-character musical exploration of friendship, the bond between two very different guys. One, the eccentric owner of a small-town bookstore; the other, an ambitious, best-selling writer who left for college and never looked back, except for the link with his childhood pal.
Author Brian Hill and composer-lyricist Neil Bartram have cobbled together their 90-minute tale as a series of recollections by the successful writer, here called Thomas Weaver. He's played by Will Chase, an actor best known for his stints in such pop musicals as "Rent," "Aida" and "Miss Saigon."
In "Story," Chase demonstrates a different side of his talent, a role that requires not only some powerhouse singing but also serious acting chops. He pulls it off beautifully, most memorably in a song called "The Butterfly," a soaring hymn to the power of believing in oneself.
Chase is matched and _ nicely complemented _ by Malcolm Gets as Alvin Kelby, the jittery, emotionally fragile proprietor of the prophetically named bookstore, The Writer's Block. It's a condition Tom suffers from as he sets out on his quest for literary fame and fortune.
And where does Tom discover his inspiration? In his friendship with Alvin, whose stories find their way into his writing and which form the backbone of the musical.
The duo's love of the holiday film "It's a Wonderful Life" begins the bonding process _ at age 6. Those few audience members who don't know this movie should brush up on this Christmas classic if they want to get the most out of "The Story of My Life." The references persist throughout their friendship.
Bartram's lyrics are nimble, often intricate but never too complicated for his spare melodic lines that often feel as if they are an homage to the reigning king of Broadway, Stephen Sondheim.
But then, among other things, "The Story of My Life" is also about the struggle to create, a journey shared by a previous tenant at the Booth, Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George."
Alvin continually admonishes his friend, "Write what you know." His words thematically echo the advice that Dot, artist Georges Seurat's muse in "Sunday," gives to the painter: "Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new."
A lot is left unspoken in "The Story of My Life," particularly the question of sexuality. Alvin seems to be gay; Tom straight. What that means for their relationship is not explored, although answers are hinted at.
In the end, Tom is left to puzzle over Alvin's life and how it affected him as an artist and as a friend. But then, even in the most deep, enduring friendships, some mysteries are never solved.
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