TheatreWorks presents…..
A Musical adaptation of Truman Capote’s
A Christmas Memory

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love,
the things you are, the things you never want to lose.
The Wonder Years

If you read Truman Capote ‘s short story of a seven-year-old child abandoned by his mother and living with the cousin who shares his sense of wonder, you would have to be made of granite to get through it without dissolving into tears. Elizabeth Lawrence says, “There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.”

It is this garden that Capote brings to life for us in his beautiful symphony of words: “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

Robert Kelley does a masterful job of recreating the mood, the tension and the spirit of the rural south during the depression and Allison Conner’s costumes are just right, down to Sook’s bobby socks and her gingham apron. Joe Ragey has designed the perfect sets for the piece and the staging recaptures the exact mood of the time. Each visual moment is an unforgettable painting from long ago.

Penny Fuller and Gabriel Hoffman capture the spirit of the piece and cement it into your memory so the audience cannot forget the beauty and the magic we all can make if we dare to kindle our imaginations. Hoffman is Capote as a child and his chemistry with Fuller, his retarded, childlike cousin, over fifty years his senior is worth the entire production. They sweep you into the story and outshine every character on that stage.

A Christmas Memory is a musical and although the songs are at times delightful and always nice, they are an unnecessary intrusion on the sweep of this sensitive painting of growing old and growing up. 1933 was not a fun time. People were homeless, jobless, frightened and hungry and The South suffered most of all. Somehow people managed to create hope and love out of the shambles of their desolation and fear and this is the story that lies beneath Capote’s lovely memoir. It is the one Robert Kelley tries to bring back to us on the TheatreWorks stage and he succeeds. The script however does not.

The main problem here is pace. One can handle just so much sweetness and nostalgia before it sours and writer Duane Pool evidently didn’t know when enough was enough. The other actors all have their moments on stage, but they are all acting, not being. Richard Farrell is a consummate 1933 postman, but he isn’t real. He also plays Buddy’s uncle and Haha Jones and in each role he just misses the human connection. Cathleen Riddley does her best in an inadequate, poorly developed role and makes it as human as anyone can.

But if you remember childhood, its fears and its immense need, you won’t care a whit about anything but the gossamer web of love that binds Buddy and Sook to one another. It reaches out to you the moment the two of them appear on that stage and all the rest of the action fades into the background. In Capote’s story he describes his cousin: “In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry.” And you love her all the more for her innocence and her belief that good and evil are absolutes. It is this faith she gives to Buddy and as you watch them wheel their baby buggy across the stage to gather pecans or fly their kites in the air toward a heaven as real to them as I Pods and computers are to the fools of today, you are lost in their world and you never want to leave.

Sadly, most of the cast have no idea what the real depression felt like, the combination of hope and despair, the hunger for things you will never find and the irrepressible need to look for it anyway. Hoffman and Fuller get it….and for them alone it is worth twice the price of a ticket to see TheatreWorks A Christmas Memory.

A Christmas Memory continues through December 26 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto
Tickets $19-$67.00 650 463 1960 or www.theatreworks.org

San Jose Rep presents….. BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS
When you’re happy, you don’t count the years.
Ginger Rogers

San Jose Rep has launched an ambitious attempt to recreate the spectacular excess of the “Golden Age Of Hollywood”. Their production of Backwards in High Heels has the costumes, the dancing and all the glitz of the era. Yet, despite a lavish presentation with elaborate cosuming and choreographed lighting and movement, it isn’t quite there…yet. Anna Aimee White is Ginger Rogers and although she plays her part well, she does just that…she hasn’t yet absorbed her character and she doesn’t ring true. Her mother Lela (Heather Lee) is right on the mark and must be especially complimented because so often she carries the scene. She is the prototype of a mother who cares, ambitious for her daughter but wary too of the influences she will have to understand and the obstacles she must overcome. Matthew LaBanca is Fred Astaire down to the last slicked hair on his head. When he dances with White, the couple does indeed recapture the glamour, grace and elegance that was theirs alone back in the golden Age of Hollywood.

The scenes move from Texas to Broadway to Hollywood and follow Rogers from her roots in Independence, Missouri to that glorious day she won an Academy Award for her dramatic leading role in Kitty Foyle even though she did the movie against everyone’s advice. That was the film that proved she was more than a singer and dancer…she was an amazing dramatic actress who went on to win a Golden Glove nomination for her role in Monkey Business. Rogers became Hollywood’s highest paid star in 1945.

The script, written by Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern manages to weave in all the old Gershwin, Kern and Berlin favorites into the flimsy plot, but it all seems a bit contrived. Still, each number is beautifully presented. The dancing, the costumes, the energy of each ensemble number is memorable and you can’t beat that wonderful music. Songs like Fascinating Rhythm and Shall We Dance can never be bad and no one cares if they fit into the story. They are wonderful to watch and marvelous to hear.

The biggest problem with this particular production is that several members of the cast play multiple roles and with few exceptions, they cannot carry it off. Christianne Tisdale is amazing as Ginger’s secretary assistant and manages to do very well in many of her other roles but she simply cannot make Ethel Merman look like more than a joke that doesn’t quite work. James Patterson has an magnificent voice and is perfectly cast as Jack Culpepper, Roger’s first husband, but as he progresses through his other roles as Hermes Pan, Jimmy Stewart and others, you are never sure who he is although there is never a doubt that this man can sing and dance.

You will love the melodies and thrill to the production itself: wonderful, creative choreography, superb costuming, energy and pace. Just don’t pay too much attention to the story…it simply isn’t there. The script doesn’t do justice to the talent on stage, but have no doubt the talent is there and every member of the cast puts their best foot forward. See it for the spectacle …you won’t be sorry.

BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS continues every night but Mondays through December 19, 2010 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets $35.00-$74.00 by phone: 408 367 7255 or online www.sjrep.com or in person.