The book is based on Truman Capote's semi-autobiographical reminiscences of his youth in a small Southern town, originally published in 1956. Main characters Buddy (the young Capote figure, played by Gabriel Hoffman) and his elderly cousin Sook (Penny Fuller) spend all their time together, spinning adventures out of making fruitcake, acquiring moonshine whiskey and preparing for Christmas in spite of mean funds. Their relationship is sweet and joyful, made poignant by the hue of memory when related by the adult Buddy (Joshua Park).
Buddy and Sook live with two more adult cousins, Jennie (Eileen Barnett) and Seabon (Richard Farrell), who look on the antics with skeptical eyes, leading Jennie to suggest military school for Buddy. The only real conflict in the story comes when Sook and Jennie face off regarding Buddy's future.
Also in the home is faithful housekeeper Anna Stabler (Cathleen Riddley). She's the only one left to greet and reminisce with the adult Buddy when he returns to deal with his inheritance of the home. Young Buddy is also tormented by the neighborhood tomboy, Nelle Harper (Jenni Chapman), until adventures and adversity effect a tentative friendship.
Sook, young Buddy and adult Buddy carry the message of the piece, as the now-sophisticated New Yorker remembers the simple pleasures and country life of his youth, and the life lessons learned from big-hearted Sook. The musical is very faithful to Capote's story, capturing the warmth and glow of a loving look back at innocence and familial love.
The actors are all quite adept in their roles, but the true standout of the show is Hoffman. He may have captured your heart as Dill in the recent production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," but here he steals it outright. He's a veritable wunderkind of acting, singing and dancing. His performance in "Buddy's Midnight Adventure" in Act Two is almost worth the price of admission alone, and he totally holds his own in the male trio "Nothing But Stars." Definitely a performer to watch.
Park does a great job as the adult Buddy, keeping it just this side of schmaltzy, and pumps lively energy into his few solos. Chapman makes a believable bully, handling her role with aplomb, and doing a thoroughly professional turn in "This and That."
Riddley basically reprises Calpurnia from "Mockingbird" — the roles are so similar — but here gets to show her singing and dancing chops in "Mighty Sweet Music" and "Detour."
Fuller acts the role of Sook expertly enough, but the music presents a different challenge. The difficulty of this musical overall is that it calls for three mature performers as the three cousins, and, while these performers are clearly veterans doing credible work, their voices simply aren't as strong as they once were. As audience members we sometimes feel we're watching a tightrope act, hoping the performer won't fall.
As new musicals go, this one feels relatively complete, but it needs something more in Act One to keep our interest; if not compelled to stay, one might well leave at intermission, which would be a shame, since Act Two is much more lively and engaging, and basically makes the show worthwhile. Most of the music is not that remarkable — cute, folksy and familiar — and is too contextual to become solo standard material.
Joe Ragey's set is beautifully evocative, and costumes by Allison Connor nicely say volumes about the characters and period. Lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt bathes the set in a warm, nostalgic glow, equally capturing moonlight and a glorious beach day.
Despite its shortcomings, the show wraps the audience in a bright holiday mood, generating the requisite goodwill and cheer. If you're tired of yet another "Christmas Carol," this one's an enjoyable change.
What: "A Christmas Memory," a new musical based on the story by Truman Capote, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Dec. 26, with various evening and matinee shows Tuesday through Sunday.
Cost: Tickets are $24-$56.
Info: Go to http://www.theatreworks.org or call 650-903-6000.