A much loved autobiographical short story by Truman Capote makes its holiday season comeback as a full-length musical as the Laguna Playhouse offers audiences the West Coast Premiere of Duane Poole, Larry Grossman, and Carol Hall’s overlong but entertaining—and ultimately quite moving—A Christmas Memory.

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY - 1 Whereas the Capote original was told through the voice of its child narrator “Buddy,” A Christmas Memory The Musical recounts the same story through the eyes of a grown-up Buddy, whose return to his childhood Alabama home as a 30something adult sparks memories of the very last Christmas spent with his beloved Cousin Sook, many times his age but still very much a child at heart.

As the story’s mere 48 pages in book form and its 1967 TV adaptation’s brief 51 minutes might suggest, not much “happens” in A Christmas Memory, and attempts to stretch so slight a tale into a two hour and twenty minute-long musical mean far too much padding in the show’s over-extended first act. Fortunately, a powerful Act Two proves every bit as riveting and emotionally resonant as Act One isn’t. Bring Kleenex. You’ll need them.

A Christmas Memory’s pre-intermission plot, if you can call it that, revolves around the preparation of thirty-one holiday fruitcakes, and composer Grossman and lyricist Hall have not only entitled one of their fourteen catchy original songs “Alabama Fruitcake,” but manage to include the refrain “fruitcake summer” in both the show’s “Prologue” and its “Finale.” Book writer Poole (who also wrote the screenplay for a 1997 Hallmark TV movie starring Patty Duke as Sook) stretches this “storyline” as far as it can stretch, with a sequence and/or song for each ingredient, not only the “fruit” and the “cake” but also the whisky that gives the fruitcakes their kick, the latter ingredient requiring a visit to the shack of local bootlegger/bogeyman Haha Jones.

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY - 3 Along the way, we get to know not only Buddy, but the three adult siblings with whom he has been sent to live following his parents’ divorce: cranky spinster (and town milliner) Cousin Jenny, “confirmed bachelor” (and town hypochondriac) Cousin Seabon, and most importantly 50something child-woman (and town eccentric) Cousin Sook. There’s also young Nelle Harper, years before the adult “Harper Lee” would write her own fictional versions of Buddy and herself as Dill and Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. Completing the cast of characters is African-American housekeeper Anna, whose survival into the 1950s provides Adult Buddy with a link to his past memories.

Though Act One does feature the lively ensemble number “Mighty Sweet Music” (shades of A Chorus Line 1930s Alabama-style) and gives Anna a bluesy solo “Detour,” there’s far too much padding along the way.

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY - 2 On a considerably more exciting note, Act Two gives Buddy and Sook a hilariously “getting drunk” scene, features one of the best dream sequences (“Buddy’s Midnight Adventure”) since Tevye conjured up his Grandma Tzeitl nightmare, and achieves real emotional punch as Buddy must face the consequences of Jennie’s disapproval of his friendship with Sook and his “sissy” ways.

Though I wouldn’t go so far, as some have suggested, to recommend chopping A Christmas Memory down to a single ninety-minute one-act, its first act does run a good twenty minutes too long for as slight a tale as this is, and cuts need to be made, however painful they may be to the musical’s creative trio.

Fortunately, with master director Nick DeGruccio working his theatrical magic at the Laguna Playhouse, musical director Darryl Archibald and the production’s live three-piece orchestra* doing full justice to Grossman’s hummable melodies, and a cast of some of Southern California’s best musical theater performers doing  all-around splendid work, A Christmas Memory is well worth seeing, particularly with the assurance that after some Act One doldrums, Act Two will provide more than enough reason to come back from intermission.

Marsha Waterbury couldn’t be more memorable as Sook, doing rich, multi-layered work that will have you loving Buddy’s eccentric cousin every bit as much as he does. Tracy Lore adds yet another jewel to her SoCal theater crown as Jennie, allowing us to see the love that motivates a decision we fear will have dire consequences on the sensitive young Buddy, and her big solo number “You Don’t Know It” is a showstopper. Tom Shelton is equally fabulous in three very different roles—as malady-plagued Seabon, as gossipy mailman Farley, and as spooky/scary Haha Jones. As Anna, a marvelous Amber Mercomes not only convinces us she is decades older than her real self, but gives housekeeper Anna loads of warmth—and a great big voice to match.

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY - 5 As Young Buddy, William Spangler is a good young actor, but something is a bit off when the role is played by a thirteen-year-old (who seems his age) rather than the nine-year-old Capote was in December of 1933. Siena Yusi plays Nelle with plenty of requisite spunk. Oh, and Pickle is a cutie as Queenie the Dog.

Last but definitely not least is the always wonderful Ciarán McCarthy doing some of his very best work as Adult Buddy, not only in his scenes opposite Mercomes, but in “legit” vocals you might not expect from The Wedding Singer’s rocking Robbie Hart, Adult Buddy’s ubiquitous presence keeping us ever mindful of the man Young Buddy was to become.

Scenic designer D Martyn Bookwalter’s gorgeous, gorgeously lit (by Steven Young) set has precisely the right look for a musical made up of misty, water-colored memories. Bruce Goodrich’s period costumes and Joshua McKendry’s crisp sound design are winners as well.

Casting director Wally Ziegler has put together the production’s cast of L.A.-based actors. Don Hill is production stage manager and Luke Yankee assistant stage manager.

Ultimately, despite the need for an editor’s red pen to its first act, A Christmas Memory proves a powerful, emotionally affecting holiday musical treat. If you’re anything like this reviewer, by the time its tear-inducing “Finale” rolls around, you will likely rate A Christmas Memory quite memorable indeed.

*Achibald on keyboard, Tyler Emerson on keyboard and violin, and Drew Hemwall on percussion.

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
December 17, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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