'Chasing Mem'ries: A Different Kind of Musical': Theater Review

World premiere of Chasing Mem’ries A Different Kind of Musical - Tyne Daly and Robert Forster -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Chris Whitaker
Mem'ries will light the corners of your mind.

The Oscar-winning title song from 'The Way We Were' has inspired a new play with music, starring Tyne Daly and Robert Forster in a world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse.

In Josh Ravetch's witty Chasing Mem'ries: A Different Kind of Musical, the one-liners come fast. So do the sobs. Tyne Daly plays Victoria, a Connecticut housewife who’s not coping after being jolted by sudden widowhood. Rather than join the 250-or-so guests who have gathered for a backyard memorial at the family's stately home, Victoria retreats to the attic, where souvenirs are savored and lives can be relived.

That's the setup for this swift, 90-minute one-act play with musical interludes. The "Mem'ries" in the title are the "misty water-colored" kind — from Alan and Marilyn Bergman's famed Oscar-winning song "The Way We Were," providing the sweet throughline in this rumination on family life and smiles left behind.

If you've aged past 50 and haven't asked yourself, "Where did the time go?" — a) what's wrong with you?; and b) this might not be the show for you. But for anyone who has ever really pondered a friendship gone awry or a chance taken that turned out surprisingly well, Daly and writer-director Ravetch combine for a compact meditation on it all. Given the well-trodden turf and familiar music, the potential for sap abounds. That all involved avoid most of the usual cliches really says something.

Then again, this is Tyne Daly — inventor of the modern-day female hero. Has anyone ever really played tough-and-tender quite so well? She won four Emmys portraying Mary Beth Lacey on CBS's long-running '80s cop drama Cagney & Lacey; she has six in all and 16 nominations. Yet Daly followed that TV triumph with a one-eighty — returning to the stage to belt show-tunes, she won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Rose in the 1989 Broadway revival of Gypsy.

On stage at the Geffen Playhouse, where Chasing Mem'ries made its world premiere Wednesday night, Daly once again puts her formidable voice to work. But the songs that pop up here amid the dialogue are subdued; her gentle vocals setting the mood for mourning and laughter. Let's not imagine what this demanding, occasionally soapy dish would be like in lesser hands. Daly is a comic force in turmoil.

Then there is Ravetch, who with Carrie Fisher co-created and directed Fisher's nonpareil bio-show Wishful Drinking at the Geffen in 2006, in a production that continued on to Broadway. His ear for dialogue here ("When you wave people off, you're screaming for company") and what women want remains undiminished.

By design, Ravetch has left the show's musical numbers out of the playbill, preferring to surprise theatergoers rather than see them fidget in anticipation of songs to come. Semi-spoiler: Daly does eventually get around to "The Way We Were," and it's beautiful — but not like any version we've heard before. The Bergmans, by the way (now 92 and 88 respectively), are really collaborators on this show, their wistful lyrics — some old, some brand-new — positioned all through it as answers to Victoria's anguish.

On a mission to extract his mother from the attic, we also come to know Victoria's son Mason — a terrific turn by Scott Kradolfer — who is wrestling with his own wrenching loss. And as the husband, venerable screen presence Robert Forster is the matter-of-fact anchor who turns grim skies at least gray.

Thomas Griep's sublime orchestrations and scenic designer Tony Fanning's whimsical attic — can we say "scattered pictures"? — are all that's needed for Victoria to freeze time. If only we all could.

Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Tyne Daly, Robert Forster, Scott Kradolfer
Director-playwright: Josh Ravetch
Music: Bill Cantos & Mari Falcone, Dave Grusin, Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand, Johnny Mandel
Lyrics: Alan & Marilyn Bergman
Set designer: Tony Fanning
Costume designer: Kate Bergh
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Music director: Thomas Griep
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse