Olney presents `Gifts' as a holiday musical

Theater Review

November 28, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Surprise! There's a musical based on two short stories by O. Henry, the master of the surprise ending.

The Gifts of the Magi isn't a new show; it debuted off-Broadway in 1984 and had a couple of productions in Washington some years back. But it may be new to many area theatergoers, which makes its appearance at Olney Theatre Center somewhat of a welcome gift in itself.

O. Henry's stories were modest affairs about ordinary folks, and in keeping with that, The Gifts of the Magi is a modest musical. The cast numbers only six, and the running time at Olney is less than two hours, including intermission.

Director Bradford Watkins' production, however, is also merely modest, more of a charming respite than a knock-your-Santa-socks-off holiday entertainment.

Charm is actually part of the problem with this minimusical, which has a book by Mark St. Germain and a score by Randy Courts (who also co-wrote the lyrics). O. Henry's stories have a certain amount of grit in them. Instead of Sugar Plum Fairies, he wrote about the poor, the homeless and those on the wrong side of the law. Watkins' production doesn't loiter in Sugar Plum Land, but it does have a level of cuteness that seems antithetical to the alcoholic, ex-con author.

Just before intermission, for example, Della (dulcet-voiced Trinity Baker) and Jim (earnest Benjamin Eakeley) - the poverty-stricken young couple in the title story - decorate their sad little Christmas tree.

You don't remember a Christmas tree in the story? There wasn't one. This is one of several alterations the musical makes in O. Henry's plots. In this case, the tree is actually a half-dead branch Della has retrieved and which the couple adorns with kitchen utensils, topping it off with sifted flour in lieu of snow. It's kind of like low-rent Martha Stewart, and though it ushers in one of the show's sweeter songs, "Once More," it's a tad too sweet and precious.

The addition of the tree, however, isn't as odd as the acrimony the musical builds into Jim and Della's relationship. It's not enough that they can't afford to buy each other Christmas presents, or that Jim has a pitifully low-paying job. In the musical, Jim is unemployed and the two are at each other's throats. In the original story, there's no doubt that this couple can weather any storm; in the musical, that's not at all certain.

St. Germain and Courts' instincts are right on the mark in one important respect, though. They introduce a nice touch of comic relief into the proceedings by interweaving "The Gift of the Magi" (for the record, the word "gift" is singular in the story's title) with a tale called "The Cop and the Anthem."

This lesser-known story is an account of a homeless man named Soapy Smith, whose chief aspiration as the mercury dips is to be domiciled in a warm cell with three squares a day, courtesy of the state. In other words, Soapy is the embodiment of the age-old question: What do you have to do to get arrested in this town?

Played by Sal Mistretta with the hang-dog demeanor and rubbery limbs of a sad-sack clown, Soapy tries freeloading at a restaurant, stealing, even throwing a rock through a window, only to find himself the victim of holiday generosity. Seeing Soapy and Jim indulge in a little soft shoe in a number titled "Bum Luck" is an easy reminder of how close Jim is to skid row.

The show's creators further knit the two stories together by adding three other characters. The action is narrated - and in some cases, goosed along - by a newsboy named Willy Porter (O. Henry's real name). The narrator device works well, especially since O. Henry was himself a newspaperman at the start of his career. Anthony Manough, who plays the role, has the requisite plucky stage presence, but his vocal intonation is less assured.

The other two new characters are more problematic. Labeled "The City -- Him" (Darrel Blackburn) and "The City -- Her" (Lisa Howard), they portray incidental characters such as waiters, store clerks, etc. But they're also intended to be stand-ins for the entire New York City population, a conceit that's even more precious - and strained - than Della and Jim's Christmas tree.

So, The Gifts of the Magi is a mixed bag of presents. It won't make you wish you could run away to Siam (as Della wishes in the score's most bizarre lyric), but it may make you want to re-read your O. Henry. And come to think of it, that's not such a bad thing.

The Gifts of the Magi

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; matinees 2 p.m. Sundays, most Saturdays, and Dec. 18, 24, 26. Through Dec. 28

Tickets: $15-$35

Call: 301-924-3400

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