Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Coco's Diary: A Christmas Gift to Remember
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Of Mice and Men, Waitress, A Christmas Carol, and Coney Island Christmas and Kit's review of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley


Dora Dolphin, Andrea Wollenberg, and Jake Endres
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
Coco's Diary: A Christmas Gift to Remember had its world premiere at History Theatre in 2012, where it has returned to give old friends a second helping and new soon-to-be fans a first taste of this delightful play with music. Taking place from Christmas 1926 through New Year's Eve 1927, Coco's Diary follows Coco Irvine from age 12 through most of her 13th year. Coco was the daughter of lumber baron and attorney Horace Irvine and his wife Clotilde. Clotilde was also Coco's given name, but she opted for Coco. Along with her two sisters (one older, one younger) and older brother Tom, they resided in a 20-room English Tudor mansion on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, a tree-lined boulevard known for its many large, gracious homes, a great many of which still stand today.

In 1927, Coco received a diary as a Christmas gift in which she chronicled her life, recording all the things that mattered to her, which only by happenstance might correspond to what mattered to her parents, her teachers, or anyone else. Young Coco wrote with a dramatic flair and made high adventure out of every incident in her comfortable life. Fast forward to the 21st century: the diary turned up in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society and was published in 2011 under the title "Through No Fault of My Own," a line Coco often uses just before describing her most recent bout of mischief.

The stage adaptation begins with the adult Coco (Andrea Wollenberg) bearing a poinsettia, returning to her family home on Christmas Eve, 1965, at age 51. A social event is about to take place, and the next to arrive is her brother Tom (Jake Endres). With Tom tinkering on the family baby grand, they reminisce about their youth, including a surprisingly entertaining reprieve of their childhood arrangement of "Up on the Rooftop." Then Tom gives Coco a Christmas gift. She protests, they had agreed "no gifts," until she opens it. It is her diary.

As middle-aged Coco reads the words she wrote so long ago, 12-year-old Coco (Dora Dolphin and Arden Michalec, alternating performances) appears. Over two acts, that year of Coco's life is portrayed through a blend of adult Coco reading from the diary and young Coco enacting its contents, sometimes reading her entries aloud as she writes them. Endres takes on the guise of 16-year-old Tom, of their father Horace, their deaf grandfather, various boys in whom Coco has varying degrees of interest, and other characters. When not reading from the diary, Wallenberg plays Coco's mother Clotilde and an array of her friends and teachers. Both actors bring out the humor that runs throughout the work.

Musical moments are frequently culled into the story, including popular tunes of the 1920s such as "Button-Up Your Overcoat," "He's a College Boy," "Peg 'o My Heart," "It's a Grand Old Flag," "What'll I Do?" and a beautiful song I had never before heard called "Diane," from the 1927 movie Seventh Heaven. Endres, who serves double duty as musical director, has whipped the show's song selections into a sweetly elegiac refreshment. The upbeat numbers often include Coco, along with Tom or another character, dancing. Sometimes young Coco dances with the older Coco, mirroring movements from the dance floor of her memory. The swell period choreography is by Regina Peluso.

Coco's first diary entries focus on her recent discovery that she likes boys. She uses the diary to track which ones she likes and, more importantly, how to tell which ones like her. There is one in particular whom she likes very much. He acts as if he doesn't care for her at all, which she takes as a good sign. Coco's escapades are not so remarkable as is the flair with which she reports them, her great pleasure in getting into trouble aided by her genius for avoiding consequences, or at least making them palatable. She has escapades at school, at the bi-weekly dancing school dances, ice-skating at the University Club, and pulling the wool over her parents eyes. Coco repeatedly confides in her diary that she cannot understand how her parents have not yet realized that she is smarter than them.

Coco made many entries during the months spent at her family's summer home on the lake: episodes of sailing debacles, of the pimply bellboy at the sailing club who pursues her, of driving her older sister's car around the island. It is naughty but hardly earth-shaking stuff. Yet, as described by Coco and played by Dora Dolphin (on opening night), it couldn't possibly be more entertaining or more charming. When one of her older sister's suitors comments that he finds Coco charming, she practically swoons, as if there could be no higher accolade. Indeed, not in her charmed world.

Ron Peluso adapted the diary for the stage, with his collaborator Bob Beverage working in the musical elements. He has stated that the play is 15 percent him and 85 percent Coco, which comes across in the fresh innocence of the dialogue and its authentic sense of experiencing everything in life for the first time. Peluso also directs, guiding the three actors to play off one another with seamless timing. Scenes in which the older Coco starts a line and young Coco joins in, speaking in unison, until the adult drops of and the spotlight is back on the child, create a genuine sense of the older woman reliving her childhood through her own forgotten words. This makes for a lovely staging, and maintains a dynamism on stage in a play where lots of things are talked about, rather than enacted.

The three actors are treasures. Andrea Wollenberg and Jake Endres created their roles in the 2012 production, and shift from their 1965 characters into the wide range of 1927 characters they each play like chameleons. Endres is especially endearing as young Tom, who adores his kid sister, and sometimes is her partner in misadventure. He also plays the piano with 1920s smart society style. On opening night, Dora Dolphin played young Coco—talk about a pint-sized showstopper! She embodies the joy, the privilege, the curiosity, the wit, the self-righteous bravado, and the innocence of this girl growing up in a swiftly changing society. Her singing and dancing skills are accomplished, with a clarion voice that easily gets the full attention of the house.

The design team has decked the show out beautifully, with the young and old Cocos both in bright red dresses, Tom in dapper formal wear, enacting their memories in the elegant parlor of the Irvine home, with a view through arched windows of the leafy boulevard, with lighting and sound used to bring the past to vibrant life.

The Christmas season features in both the beginning and end of Coco's Diary, and its chronicle of a year fits well with the New Year's theme of the cycles of our lives, looking back at ourselves a mere year ago and not able to believe how different we are. Coco's Diary trades on nostalgia in the best possible way, egging us on to cherish our simpler times and earlier selves. It is a lovely, warm-hearted, holiday gift to be unwrapped early and thoroughly enjoyed.

By the way, the Irvine mansion on Summit Avenue? It still stands, but is now property of the State of Minnesota. The social event mentioned at the start of the play marked the occasion of Coco and her younger sister Olivia giving their home as a gift to the state in 1965, to serve as Minnesota's governor's residence, which it does to this day.

Coco's Diary: A Christmas Gift to Remember continues at History Theatre through December 23, 2017, at 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets $25.00 - $52.00; Discounts available for seniors (age 60 and up) and patrons age 30 and below. Students (age 5 - 18) $15.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.

Adapted by Ron Peluso and Bob Beverage from diary of Coco Irvine published as Through No Fault of My Own; Director: Ron Peluso; Musical Direction: Jake Endres; Choreography: Regina Peluso; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Anna Hill; Lighting Design: Pamela Kildahl; Sound Designer: Joshua Stallings; Properties Designer: Kirby Moore; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Artistic Associate: Anya Kremenetsky; Production Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Stage Manager: Janet L. Hall; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh.

Cast: Dora Dolphin / Arden Michalec (Young Coco), Jake Endres (Tom Irvine, Horace Irvine, and others), Andrea Wollenberg (Coco, Clotilde Irvine, and others).


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