Plenty of shows involve friends, but only a few focus on the idea of friendship, and that’s why I wish “The Story of My Life” were a better musical. Even so, the show moves audiences despite a gaping flaw in its logic, as its current version at Delaware Theatre Company — the most seriously played of the three I’ve seen – is demonstrating.
The two-character show is in the excellent hands of Rob McClure, the locally-based actor who played the title role in Broadway’s “Chaplin” last year, and the busy local actor Ben Dibble. With solid singing voices and an air of authenticity, they play two friends who meet each other in the first grade, grow up inseparably and drift apart as adults. The message of the musical – that friendship is an important but fragile force in our lives – is powerful. After seeing “The Story of My Life,” several people have told me that they reconnect with friends from their past.
In 90 minutes and largely in song, “The Story of My Life” traces the story of two male friends. One (McClure) is young in spirit and more than a bit naïve — he stays in his small-town to help his dad run a bookstore. The other (Dibble) is more serious with fewer ties to the town – he goes off to college and becomes a best-selling fiction writer whose works appears on his friend’s bookstore shelves.
The show begins with the celebrated author returning home to eulogize his friend. He struggles to figure out what to say about a friend who had once been so much a part of his life, no matter their jealousies, oversights or rifts. Help comes from the memory of his dead buddy, who interacts with him throughout the show. We come to realize that the very stories the author writes are the stories from their friendship.
There’s a surfeit of sentimentality and goo in this: snow angels and butterflies and a pile of references to the awwww-gee film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In fact, almost from the moment it begins, “The Story of My Life” has a reach-out-and-touch-someone sensibility that’s anything but subtle. But that’s mostly forgivable, because the play’s take on friendship is both important and delivered effectively.
What’s not forgivable is the premise “The Story of My Life” asks us to buy into. In the score by Neil Bartram and the script by Brian Hill, the eulogizing friend takes to the stage with questions that continue to riddle him throughout: “I’ve got to find the piece of the puzzle that brought me here today,” he sings. “What is the moment? What is the story? When was the instant it started to crack?”
Given what we see in the show, we’d have to be a dumb as all get-out not to know the answers to any of those questions. The audience even gasps at one such crack in the friendship as the show unfolds. As a result, it’s impossible to believe the character who questions the split again and again as he tries to figure his way to a eulogy he can deliver. We’re presented with a classic straw-man premise, a lapse of logic — in this case, a lapse the show’s built on.
Bud Martin, the executive director of Delaware Theatre Company, has had a long association with this show – first as a lead producer on Broadway, where it ran in 2009 for only 24 performances (19 of them, previews) – and then at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, where he had been artistic director. There, Martin staged a compelling production of “The Story of My Life” in 2010 that took the emphasis off its flaw by focusing on the good times these two friends had. Conversely, his current staging at Delaware Theatre Company emphasizes its weak premise – Ben Dibble, the successful friend, sometime stands almost aloof during the scenes in which the two build and cement a friendship. It’s a perfectly acceptable interpretation, yet it reveals the show’s weakness.
Dick Durossette designed an all-white set of bookshelves for the intimate space in Act II Playhouse. In this new production on Delaware Theatre Company’s more expansive stage, Durossette gives us a less-cluttered and more symbolic all-white setting – a few shelves here and there and a huge book-shaped platform on which the eulogy will be given. It’s sleek and attractive – much like the production, backed sweetly by a six-piece orchestra.
“The Story of My Life” runs through Dec. 22 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water St., Wilmington, Del. 302-594-1100 or www.delawaretheatre.org.