The Story of My Life at Illusion Theater

Kevin Hansen (left) and Steven Meerdink play friends in real life and onstage
Laurie Etchen

On an all-white set that is quickly revealed to be the inner mind of best-selling writer Thomas Weaver, Neil Bartman and Brian Hill's The Story of My Life plays out its central questions: Where did a friendship go so wrong, and what can be salvaged after it's too late?

The bonds of friendship run throughout Minneapolis Musical Theatre's engaging and often moving production, which finds the company's co-founders sharing the spotlight one last time before one of them moves off into retirement.

The Story of My Life works in subtle ways, slowly building the friendship—and eventual falling out—between the two characters. It's not anything that hasn't been seen before, but Kevin Hansen and Steven Meerdink so completely inhabit their characters that the issue of familiarity quickly fades away. Instead we are swept, via story and song, into the lives of these two characters.

They are Thomas (Meerdink) and Alvin (Hansen), who meet as first-graders on Halloween. Thomas has come as Clarence, the angel from It's a Wonderful Life, which is a favorite of Alvin's. Alvin has come as the ghost of his dead mother. From the start he's portrayed as someone who is a bit eccentric, but the two find enough in common to remain friends while growing up.

Adulthood eventually pushes the pair apart, which is where the real meat of the play is found. Thomas searches his memories—with the help of the specter of Alvin—for the key moments when the breakdown in their friendship happened. These moments provide the musical's real heft, as the pair poke and prod at the real issues, from marriage to careers to unrequited love, that can drive old friends apart.

Both Meerdink and Hansen bring plenty of shades to characters that could have remained stock, and they both dig into what they can find in the material. Sometimes, the pair adds far more weight to the moments and songs than the rather meager book and lyrics provide, digging deep into their real quarter-century friendship to add to their onstage characters.

That's where The Story of My Life really flies, as the two use Alvin and Thomas as a springboard to explore any longstanding relationship. It's fitting that it comes on the MMT stage, which has been their labor of love for two decades (Hansen will step aside from the organization following the season). The show embraces what brought them together, a love of theater and music, and spins that into a universal tale.

If you come to Coco's Diary hoping for deep insights into the psyche of '20s-era America, or into characters caught on the edge of the Flapper years and heading into the grim era of the Great Depression and World War II, then you've come to the wrong show. The play, adapted by Bob Beverage and director Ron Peluso and now playing at the History Theatre, stays decidedly inside the mind of its title character, a precocious 13-year-old on the cusp of adolescence on an exclusive St. Paul street in 1927.

It's material that could pretty easily become too self-involved to carry a full-length show, especially as the chronological diary doesn't really provide any great story arcs or revelations, just an insight into the steady growth of a young girl into a young woman. Thankfully, there's a lot of charm in the writing and acting. All three performers (Andrea Wollenberg and Jake Endres as the various adults, Anna Evens as young Coco in the performance I saw) have a ball, romping along like they are telling favorite family stories at a reunion.

The three also build the atmosphere of the time with plenty of hit songs from the 1920s, often led by the very talented Endres.

In the end, if there's a message here, it's that teenagers, no matter the obsessions or the slang, haven't changed all that much in the last century. They still want to learn more about the outside world and relationships, and feel a special thrill when someone from outside their circle recognizes them for the special person they are.

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