There are nights in this business when all you're looking for is a sweet little piece of honest sentiment. It needn't be terribly original -- in fact if it borrows the right motifs, all the better. And it needn't be ironic or dazzling. It just needs to be played with sincerity and obvious friendship.
"The Story of My Life" bombed on Broadway and has struggled in the provinces -- mostly with critics. Minneapolis Musical Theatre has brought this fragile musical to the Twin Cities, with Steven Meerdink and Kevin Hansen playing childhood friends who rummage through their shared experience.
The show takes on the added poignancy that Hansen is leaving the troupe after 20 years as Meerdink's artistic partner. Perhaps that backdrop colors our perceptions. Or perhaps this is just a charming buddy musical.
Meerdink plays Thomas Weaver, a famous writer who has come back to his hometown to eulogize Alvin Kelby, a recently deceased friend who never ventured out of the little city, a la George Bailey. (Brian Hill's story has countless references to "It's a Wonderful Life.")
Meerdink's Weaver struggles for the right words to honor his friend, and suddenly Hansen's Kelby pops up in the halls of his memory -- a place of tall bookshelves stacked with stories. The two wend through childhood, teenage angst and adulthood. Before you can say, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings," you have yourself a musical.
Director Christine Karki smartly resists the temptation to play these scenes with tears and puppy-dog looks. She finds the spiky edges in this maudlin material, and lets Meerdink and Hansen explore simmering moments of conflict. Darren Hensel's rambling white library set catches the colors and moods of Grant Merges' lighting design.
Meerdink and Hansen treat their characters with kindness and discovery. Alvin carries a childhood wound that leaves him forever immature. Tom struggles with the demands of the grown-up world and eventually admits what we saw the first time he sang a story to Alvin: the little sprite is his muse. For Alvin, Tom was the friend who found worth in his eccentricities.
Neil Bartram's lyrics have drawn comparison to Sondheim, perhaps because he lays them out with rapid-fire tempi and density. They also convey rich imagery and tension. His music is the kind of melodic recitative that rarely stands out. It is pleasant enough, and well played by Lori Maxwell's ensemble.
You might shed a tear; you might roll your eyes. "The Story of My Life" just struck me right at Friday night's opening. Imagining the years Meerdink and Hansen have toiled in service of this little company, and seeing them give a genuine and unstinting account of two old friends who recognize the impact they've had on each other was so worth the 90-minute investment.