Unabashedly Sentimental

Arizona Onstage’s “The Story of My Life” tugs at musical heart strings

This is the season when sentiment is a thing to be celebrated. When a musical melody can be a thread stitched directly into the heart, and we allow that thread to be tugged again and again. It's the season when, in spite of all the flutter and flash of tinsel, we remember quite nakedly the children we used to be, and in important ways, we are still.

That's why Arizona Onstage Productions can produce a highly sentimental, and not very well known, musical called "The Story of My Life," and it really doesn't bother us all that much that it's unabashedly sentimental.

It's the story of boyhood friends who wind up on widely divergent paths, but who remain forever connected, even when that connection is denied.

The music and lyrics are by Neil Bartram, and the book is by Brian Hill. But it's the lyrics that win the day, and they are clever and witty and sweet. And as performed here by Jeremy Vega and Tyler Wright, they conjure an almost irresistible charm.

The young Alvin Kelby (Vega) is an odd, small child who loses his mother when he's 6. He lives with his father, who runs the Writer's Block bookstore. His friend Thomas Weaver (Wright) is protective of Alvin because they bonded over a shared love of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," which they as boys watched together every year, culminating with a joyous snow angel creation celebration outside. Weaver discovers early in his life that he wants to be a writer, but Alvin seems timid of wanting anything, except Thomas Weaver.

The setting against which their flashback story plays out is the death of Alvin and Thomas' return to town to deliver his eulogy.

Their stories are familiar to us. We've all been in the shoes of children whose fate–not only at school but far beyond–has been determined by a teacher whose mercy surpasses handing out passing grades ("Mrs. Remington.") We've all considered our smallness, but realize that even small things can make a difference ("The Butterfly.") All of us have felt victories when we find a missing part of ourselves ("Angels in the Snow.")

There's not much nuance here and the show would be much better if there were, in several arenas, including both actors' characterizations. But there are some wonderfully soaring voices accompanied by three first-rate musicians under the musical direction of Bill Patterson. Unfortunately, Bartram's lyrics are often overwhelmed by the music. Chris Pankratz has designed a unique set, and, even as it echoes other designers' efforts, it is richly evocative. Everything is creamy white, a bookstore full of books with colorless binding and pages waiting to be filled. It's a ghostly but tangible world made of hope and fear and friendship and loss and love.

Director Kevin Johnson clearly embraces this story with genuine passion. Johnson, who has led Arizona Onstage since its birth, has introduced several unfamiliar, small-scale musicals to Tucson. But "unfamiliar" is a hard sell. He's also produced some massive undertakings like "Les Miserables" this last summer, which sold out before it opened. But it's the small, tightly focused musicals that Johnson loves to share. "The Story of My Life" is clearly one of these.

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