A Christmas Memory, now something of a seasonal classic, started life as a Truman Capote short story of the same name published in Mademoiselle in 1956. It has since seen film and television adaptations and several staged musical productions, of which the current run, at the Irish Rep, is the latest.
This is a sweet musical that conjures a time of innocence, as our adult narrator walks us back to his last childhood Christmas in Alabama. Buddy’s three eccentric cousins are raising him, but he has bonded exclusively with his cousin Sook. She is a childlike woman and his full-time playmate. The story begins in late November–”Fruitcake Weather”–as the casts dubs it in the opening number. Buddy and Sook set about rounding up the ingredients for their annual fruitcake bake.
Since it is a reminiscence, the book is haunted by our current understanding of Capote. Though never identified, he is the sensitive boy who bonds with his childlike cousin. Nelle Harper, the tough little girl next door, is Harper Lee who later writes her version of “young Buddy” into To Kill A Mockingbird. Capote is also the adult narrator, who returns to the house after all the cousins have died.
Ashley Robinson (Adult Buddy/Capote) captures the tenderness of Capote’s nostalgia. He has the look of Daniel Radcliffe’s eternally boyish Harry Potter and a convincing grasp on the elastic vowels in a slow-talking Alabama drawl. Robinson eases us in and out of then-and-now. On a tiny stage, he gets closer and closer to the boy, eventually taking young Buddy on his lap. Robinson is very appealing as an actor, but, as a singer his voice while good but thin, and we struggle to hear the lyrics.
This is true for several of the performers. The decision to stage a musical without amplification is daring and lends a welcome authenticity to the proceedings. Still, even in this small house, the 99-seat DR2 Theater (Irish Rep’s temporary digs as it renovates the place in Chelsea) I found myself, more than once, straining to hear just what the singer was singing.
That said, you don’t miss a word, from the spectacular Alice Ripley. She steals the show as Sook. We fall in love with her, as the young Capote clearly did. It helps that she has a hoofer’s step, a recording artist’s voice, and a stunning stage presence that keeps you watching her go and awaiting her return.
There are two children in the production. Silvano Spagnuolo plays the young Buddy and ten-year-old Taylor Richardson is Nelle Harper. Richardson graduated from orphan to the title role in Annie last year and the polish shows. On the page she may be Harper Lee’s tomboy-self, but on this stage she brings a “big enough” voice and some serious acting chops.
Silvano Spagnuolo, also ten, has a lot on his narrow shoulders in this, his off-Broadway debut. As the young Buddy he’s busy and working hard. He hits his marks and even dances convincingly with two women and a girl. He is sometimes hard to hear. Each of the remaining adults gets a solo and all of the cast is chorus some of the time.
Virginia Ann Woodruff (Anna Stabler) plays a stock character. She is the knowing black woman, the family retainer, with whom our narrator reminisces. She was a loving, if tangential, figure at that last Christmas. She brings a big voice and a lot of bounce and fun to her solo, Detour.
Samuel Cohen plays cousin Seabon and a couple of lesser lights. Seabon is sickly and dependent on cousin Jennie, as, in fact, are they all. Nancy Hess (Jennie) delivers a touching solo, You Don’t Know It, that lends her character some humanity.
The music is period appropriate and pleasant, delivered by an orchestra hidden in the eves. They appear to be amplified and at times overwhelm the human voices.
A Christmas Memory is not a “must see.” It is enjoyable, and pleasant, and Christmasy, and something perfect for a family outing.
WITH: Virginia Anne Woodruff (Anna Stabler), Ashley Robinson (Adult Buddy), Nancy Hess (Jennie Faulk), Alice Ripley (Sook Faulk), Samuel Cohen (Seabon Faulk, Haha Jones, Farley), Silvano Spagnuola (Young Buddy), Taylor Richardson (Nelle Harper).
Designed by James Noone; costumes by David Toser, lighting by Brian Nason. The music director is Micah Young with orchestrations by Steve Orich. The orchestra: Micah Young on piano, John DiPinto on synth, Ed Shea percussion. Choreographed by Barry McNabb. Presented by The Irish Repertory Theatre at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street, Manhattan. Through January 4th. Running time 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission.