By Lynn Venhaus
Friendship is indeed one of life’s blessings, especially those lasting ones through the ebb and flows of the years. The French novelist Francois Mauriac once wrote that “No love, no friendship, can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark on it forever.” And this little musical theater gem, “The Story of My Life,” illustrates that theme beautifully.
New Line Theatre kicks off its 30th season with this deceptively simple yet poignant and profound work, an intimate and thoughtful reflection on the special people who change our lives. It runs Sept. 30 through Oct. 23, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Marcelle Theater.
It particularly strikes a chord after what we’ve been through during the past 18 months, dealing with a coronavirus pandemic and periods of lockdown and quarantine during the public health crisis. The appreciation of and craving for connection has become an exclamation point.
“The Story of My Life” opened on Broadway in 2009 after earlier productions in Toronto and the Goodspeed Opera House. It was nominated for four Drama Desk Awards, including best musical.
With a keenly observed book written by Brian Hill and heartfelt music and lyrics by Neil Bartram, “The Story of My Life” follows the friendship of Alvin Kelby and Thomas Weaver, two lifelong friends since age 6 who grew up in a small town. Once inseparable, they are reunited after Alvin’s mysterious death.
While Thomas, a successful author, struggles to write Alvin’s eulogy, his deceased pal appears from the afterlife, and they take a sentimental journey, revealing moments big and small from their intertwined lives.
Alvin goes through the manuscripts and short stories in Thomas’ mind, some which found their way to being published and receiving acclaim.
The adage “write what you know” is what guides Thomas as he sums up his best friend. During the process, he finds his own story and comes to terms with his past.
New Line veterans Chris Kernan as Alvin and Jeffrey M. Wright as Thomas make for an appealing pair, ardently portraying the lifetime friends who chronicle their journey in vignettes – their story is told through stories.
And the two actors punctuate each other’s remembrances. Pouring their hearts and souls into the demanding roles, Kernan and Wright are passionate about making these two guys memorable.
With a deft touch, Scott Miller accompanies the pair on keyboard. He also directed the show with a smart no-frills approach that never feels static.
The score finds the magic in special moments that friends share during lengthy relationships – and addresses rough patches, too. There are four parts to “Saying Goodbye,” and each one is real.
Kernan and Wright meet the challenge of being on stage the entire 70 minutes, without an intermission, breathing life into these roles with insight and charm
Tom’s book report, “1876” and a song after something Alvin said, “The Butterfly,” are just two highlights.
These parts are unlike anything else they have ever done, with Wright known for classic leading men roles like Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls” and Nicky Arnstein in “Funny Girl,” and Kernan often supporting and humorous roles, like one of the dads in “Heathers” and St. Jimmy in “American Idiot,” and his award-winning Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
As the likable kids, who bond over their annual Christmas movie tradition “It’s a Wonderful Life,” they resonate at every turn in their lives.
Alvin, a cheerful sort despite being dealt a few George Bailey-like blows during his life, lost his mom at an early age. When his father begins ailing, he takes over running the bookstore instead of going off to college and adventures.
Thomas, a driven guy who communicates better on paper, is the one who grabs the opportunities afforded him and leaves town, rarely returning.
Alvin stays rooted in their town, running the treasure trove that is his father’s bookstore, “The Writers Block,” and misses his buddy, who is off to other crossroads. Nobody “gets” him like Thomas did. “You’re Amazing, Tom” Alvin sings.
As Thomas is off living a life he imagined, does he feel the same about how special their friendship has been?
Redolent with tender and touching moments, “The Story of My Life” includes many warm humorous bits too – starting with Alvin’s reminisce about their teacher, “Mrs. Remington.”
The show’s rich emotional depth effectively builds to a heart-tugging conclusion, ending with “Angels in the Snow.” Moist-eye alert – bring a tissue.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert’s minimalist set – full of books and the written word – and Kenneth Zinkl’s modest lighting design are impressive accents for a show that stands out without any bells and whistles.
An outstanding collaboration by all involved, “The Story of My Life” has a lot to say, and you’ll be glad you spent time getting to know Alvin and Thomas. Maybe you will recognize your own friends and your experiences along the way, like I did.
After all, George Bailey wisely learned: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”
Holiday time or not, this show is a gift to theatergoers eager to feel “the feels” that only live theater can provide. And a reminder about humanity in a time of great uncertainty and division. It could not be more timely – and timeless.
“The Story of My Life” runs through Oct. 23, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, three blocks east of Grand, in the Grand Center Arts District. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com.
Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors on Thursdays; and $30 for adults and $25 for students/seniors on Fridays and Saturdays. To charge tickets by phone, call MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the MetroTix website.
All patrons will be required to wear masks in the lobby and theatre. The stage area will be safely distanced from the audience. In addition, the Kranzberg Arts Foundation now requires all patrons 12 years or older to show proof of their full COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID-19 test upon entry for all ticketed events at all KAF indoor performance venues, including the Marcelle Theater.
Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.