AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by Larry Grossman
Lyrics by Carol Hall
Book by Duane Poole
Directed by Robert Kelley
Presented by TheatreWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA / (650) 903-6000

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"A Christmas Memory," a short story by Truman Capote, has been adapted as a musical in its world premiere at TheatreWorks. The company also presented a Russell Vandenbroucke stage adaptation of "A Christmas Memory" in December 1996. At that time it was the second part of a two-act evening called "Holiday Memories." The first part was another Capote short story, "The Thanksgiving Visitorr."

Both autobiographical works were set in Monroeville, Ala., in the early Depression, when 7-year-old Buddy (Capote's childhood name) was sent to live with distant cousins after his parents separated. The cousins were three spinster sisters (two in the musical) and their bachelor brother. Buddy became close with the eldest, Sook Faulk, a childlike woman in her early 60s. "A Christmas Memory" focuses on her great annual project of baking some 30 fruitcakes and sending them to various townspeople as well as to celebrities like first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. This stage adaptation was quite delightful, especially with the combination of Capote's poetic prose and a marvelous portrayal of Sook by Linda Hoy, who captured the woman's feelings and goodness.

The musical adaptation, at least in its present form, is not quite as satisfying. The basic story is intact in Duane Poole's book, but Penny Fuller, though a fine actress, seems too sophisticated as Sook. Other performances ring truer, especially by Gabriel Hoffman (alternating with Peter Heintz) as Buddy. However, the scenes between him and Jennifer Chapman (alternating with Maggie Brown) as Nelle Harper seem conrtrived, perhaps because both actors are teenagers -- older than their characters. (Nelle is the neighbor child who grew up to be Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird.")

Eileen Barnett plays Jennie Faulk, the other sister, a milliner who seems to be the family's sole breadwinner. Richard Farrell plays the brother, Seabon Faulk, along with most other male characters. Completing the cast are Joshua Park as the adult Buddy and Cathleen Riddley as Anna Stabler, the family's longtime housekeeper. All sing well.

The music by Larry Grossman, with lyrics by Carol Hall and musical direction by William Liberatore, is in a variety of styles from rag to shades of Sondheim. The relatively simple set is by Joe Ragey with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Cliff Caruthers. The period costumes are by Allison Connor.

Robert Kelley's direction is usually spot-on, but he can't quite overcome some innate problems. The show seems overdone, as if the creators were trying to stretch it into two acts rather than one. Perhaps with some pruning, it would flow more smoothly and energetically.

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