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BWW Review: Sierra Madre Playhouse Makes the Musical of Truman Capote's A CHRISTMAS MEMORY a Sweet Experience

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 Alison Eliel Kalmus/Sierra Madre Playhouse/through December 27

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. Playwright 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, now onstage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse through December 27. On this intimate stage with the orchestra in full view behind the actors, the flavor of the original story is well preserved by Alison Eliel Kalmus' fine direction and with a terrific ensemble.

Nevertheless, my first thought is: Does a musical version really enrich the story? The story, on its own, is oh so sweet, gentle, delicate and rich, especially at the heart, as it explores the very close relationship between Buddy (Ian Branch is Young Buddy; Jeff Scot Carey is Adult Buddy) and Sook (Diane Kelber). In spite of the age difference, they are more like best friends than mere cousins. In the musical retelling book writer Duane Poole has added some characters to the basic story, whom we will describe below.

First, let's examine the plotline; the 1955 scenario is new. Buddy (Carey) returns to Rural Alabama in 1955 to close up the house where siblings Sook, Jennie (Jean Kauffman) and Seabon (Kevin Michael Moran) had once resided. All are deceased as the story opens. As Adult Buddy 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 - not in the original - 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 (Lucy Ferrante/Samantha Salamoff) - another addition to the story - 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.

Going back to my initial question, in my mind, making the story into a musical does not enrich A Christmas Memory. At the core, it is Capote's poetry which will be eternally remembered. His words, in fact, in praise of the musical, form much of Poole's dialogue and Hall's lyrics.

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. I could live with the original telefilm with Geraldine Page and be forever a happy camper. But, as musicals go, even though the musical form does not improve the story, it does have welcome tunes by Larry Grossman and Carol Hall such as the lovely ballad "Nothing More Than Stars", a real stand out. In Act Two "Buddy's Midnight Adventure" is indeed another, a fine improvisational-like piece which is an exciting high point during the show's overall quiet pace. It captures young Buddy's imaginative mind, as if he were describing the plot of a picture show to the illiterate yet magical and soulful Sook, who just yearns to listen.

Kalmus has smoothly and lovingly directed a marvelous ensemble. Kelber makes a beautifully eccentric Sook by not overdoing anything. Every subtlety comes through her naturally. Branch (sharing the role with Patrick Geringer) is precocious, fresh and lovable as young Buddy, so much fun to watch. Carey is endearing as Adult Buddy. Jean Kauffman is dynamite as Jennie; her "You Don't Know It" soars to the rafters. Moran is very good as the ill yet wistful Seabon. Christopher Showerman plays the mailman Farley and the big and bold HaHa Jones, the Indian who trades his whiskey for a fruitcake. He makes an amazing transformation and is a hoot as HaHa. Another new character in the piece is Anna Stabler (Theresa Ford), the black servant who more than keeps the household together before and after Sook's demise. She really gets down and soulful with two rousing tunes "Mighty Sweet Music" and "Detour". Even little Sheldon shines as pet pup Queenie. David Goldstein 's set design with moving panels is functional, and Vicki Conrad's costumes are period right. Musical director Emily Cohn and her band are excellent.

I love Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory. This is the second time I have seen the musical. It is not perfect by any means, but it is imaginative and has its magical moments. I must say, I enjoyed Sierra Madre's production the most for its intimacy, warmth and marvelous cast. Go, see for yourselves, as there is much to praise, through December 27.

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