BWW Reviews: Laguna Playhouse Offers New Musicalized Version of Truman Capote's A CHRISTMAS MEMORY
A Christmas Memory/A New Musical/book by Duane Poole based upon Truman Capote's short story/music by Larry Grossman/lyrics by Carol Hall/directed by Nick DeGruccio/Laguna Playhouse/through December 29
One of my very favorite Christmas stories of all time is A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote about his boyhood growing up with his eccentric cousin Sook Faulk. Geraldine Page played Sook in a 1966 telefilm, and it was later remade for television in the 80s with Patty Duke. It is the Page version that stays with me, having left a lasting impression of the woman, the era and its fierce impact on humanity. Now Duane Poole has fashioned a retelling of the story with music by Larry Grossman and lyrics by Carol Hall in a new musical version of A Christmas Memory making its Southern California premiere at Laguna Playhouse through December 29.
My first thought is: does the story readily and smoothly adapt itself to a musical format? Or is a musical version really worth the effort? The story is oh so sweet, gentle, delicate and rich, especially at the heart, as it explores the very close relationship between Buddy (William Spangler is Young Buddy; Ciaran McCarthy is older Buddy) and Sook (Marsha Waterbury). They are more like best friends than mere cousins. In the musical retelling Buddy (McCarthy) returns to Rural Alabama in 1955 to close up the house where cousins Sook, Jennie (Tracy Lore) and Seabon (Tom Shelton) resided, after all have died. As he retells the story of growing up there in 1933 and making fruitcakes with Sook, it unfolds before our eyes in flashback fashion, with Buddy looking on and narrating. Buddy, of course, is Truman Capote, who was left by his parents to be raised by these distant relatives. Sook is innocent, fun-loving and daring, whereas her sister Jennie embodies a die-hard Christian woman who rules the household with an iron fist, as brother Seabon is fragile and sickly. It is the Depression and the family are dirt poor; Jennie owns a hat shop in the small town, but Sook and Seabon stay at home. Every Christmas Sook, Buddy and pet dog Queenie venture forth to pick pecans and purchase ingredients for their fruitcakes, which they send as presents to important people or those lesser known who have somehow touched their lives with kindness over the preceding year. The young tomboy Nelle Harper (Siena Yusi) who lives nearby has her eye on young Buddy. This is Harper Lee who became Capote's closest friend and ally during a long and difficult writing career. Lee, for those who have forgotten, penned the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and Capote, In Cold Blood. Within this story Nelle and Buddy develop a kinship sort of like on again, off again siblings. The plot, which is simple, follows Buddy and Sook through their escapades as Jennie decides to send Buddy to a military academy for reasons she believes to be for his own good, as Sook has made him too soft to deal adequately with a hard world.
The story, being character driven, depicts the intense fondness between two people, regardless of age or intelligence. Sook is like a small child; Buddy, despite is young age, is wiser and almost serves as her protector against a cruel world, represented by her siblings who look down on her and dismiss her fantasies as senseless and invaluable. Buddy helps to awaken her soul and imagination, as she makes his otherwise intolerable life there a happy one. This is shown so well, so vibrantly on film that the stage musical by its very open, theatrical nature and added characters rather diminishes the intensity of their relationship. And that is why, for me, the film is enough; the musical is unnecessary; it does not make the story any better than it already is. Seeing Capote onstage reliving his childhood does not serve to enhance the emotional connection. His voice-over on the film soundtrack suffices to bring across his deep feelings for Sook; we sense evocatively how she has changed his life for good.
One major problem with the production currently is a sound system which is muffling the actors' delivery, and making it somewhat unpleasant to listen to. It needs to be corrected immediately. That aside, Nick DeGruccio has evenly and caringly directed a marvelous ensemble. Waterbury makes a beautifully engaging Sook by not overdoing anything. She makes every subtlety come across naturally. Spangler is a tad overambitious as young Buddy, but fun to watch; McCarthy has his most endearing role to date. His reflective state is clear, but once sound problems clear, his delivery will pour forth, and he will simply soar. Tracy Lore is dynamic and thoroughly real as Jennie; Shelton is very good as Seabon and also gets a chance to display versatility in playing the mailman Farley and HaHa Jones, the Indian who trades his whiskey for a fruitcake. The new character in the piece is Anna Stabler (Amber Mercomes), the black servant who more than keeps the household together before and after Sook's demise. She really gets down and soulful with two of the best songs "Mighty Sweet Music" and "Detour". Some of Larry Grossman's and Carol Hall's tunes are forgettable, but the lovely ballad "Nothing More Than Stars" stands out as does "Buddy's Midnight Adventure", a fine improvisational-like piece which is imaginative and an exciting high point during the show's overall quiet pace. D Martyn Bookwalter's big open set is lovely to look at, adding nice touches to the poetic story, and Bruce Goodrich's costumes are period right.
As I said before, I love A Christmas Memory and laud the actors and creative team for their endeavors. But, please, clean up the sound...and then we'll re-evaluate what surfaces. There are some beautiful moments here, but as is, I prefer the 1966 TV film version...and of course, Capote's written narrative. But, go and see for yourselves, as there is much to praise.