The Dayton Theatre Guild supplies a commendable regional premiere of composer Neil Bartram and librettist Brian Hill’s under-appreciated 2009 musical “The Story of My Life,” an intimate small town account of a lifelong friendship which closed on Broadway after five performances.
Delicately directed with musical seamlessness by Debra Kent, “Story” swiftly and intriguingly details the funny, joyous and heartbreaking kinship between successful author Thomas Weaver (Scott Knisley) and sensitive book seller Alvin Kelby (Jeff Sams), whose story begins at the end as Thomas prepares Alvin’s eulogy. From impressionable adolescence to the pains of adulthood, Thomas and Alvin’s emotive journey, grounded with a mutual affection for Frank Capra and Mark Twain, is a relatable one signifying a bond that appeared charmingly unbreakable yet ultimately fizzled into a haze of regret. A deeper subtext of unrequited love isn’t explored here, which could have given the production a stronger dramatic appeal and a pinch of unpredictability, but Kent and her cast embrace Hill’s smart, sentimental plot at face value without detriment.
Stepping into the musical theater realm, the believably bonded Knisley and Sams, primarily known for their work in straight plays, provide their best performances to date. Knisley skillfully interprets Thomas’ frustrated agony and overt arrogance as Alvin routinely cajoles him into a whirlwind of reflection not only about their childhood but the splinters within their friendship and the sheer acknowledgement that he was his muse. Sams, adopting an enthusiastic, childlike wonder recalling a tamer version of Will Ferrell, charms throughout while displaying a striking vulnerability. Musically, both are relatively comfortable within the confines of Bartram’s lilting yet vocally challenging, Sondheim-esque score. They tend to become pitchy when aiming for high notes, but are admirable on the whole as accompanied by Rebecca Nicely Childs. In fact, Sams memorably delivers a wonderfully poignant rendition of “People Carry On,” a beautiful ballad detailing Alvin’s reaction to the loss of his mother. Knisley strongly counters with “1876,” “The Butterfly” and the hauntingly melancholic “I Like It Here.”
“Relationships thrive or dissolve without our knowing why,” Thomas admits. “Story” doesn’t answer every question, but it deserves to be discovered for it certainly proves its worth at the Guild.
“The Story of My Life” continues through June 17 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Act One: 50 minutes; Act Two: 45 minutes. Raymonde Nicely Rougier will provide piano accompaniment for the remainder of the production. Tickets are $10-$17. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org.