KPBS AIRDATE: December 18, 1996
The classic story was only four pages long, and there was only one gift in the title. But the musical version lasts about 90 intermissionless minutes and is called, “The Gifts of the Magi.” Maybe it gains some plurality from the tripartite nature of the piece — encompassing the classic O. Henry tale of love, mutual sacrifice and bittersweet coincidence, as well as other New York stories from O. Henry’s collection, “The Four Million.” Co-writers Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts, who oddly receive no bios or background info in the Lamb’s Players program, also created the musical “Johnny Pye and the Fool-Killer” and St. Germain wrote the drama “Forgiving Typhoid Mary,” both of which have been presented by Lamb’s. All their works have a decidedly moral slant and religious bent. I suppose it’s okay in a Christmas story, but it was still a bit much for me.
The original “Gift of the Magi” is simple and unadorned, and in fact, the show works best when it focuses on that tender, sentimental holiday tale. St. Germain and Courts have also added the homeless vagrant Soapy from O. Henry’s “The Cop and the Anthem.” Here’s a tattered, ragtag, happily unemployed guy who’ll do almost anything to get sent to jail for the season, a guarantee of three squares and a roof in the dead of winter. Doren Elias has a heckuva good time with this role, and he shines in his cute, clever vaudeville number, “Bum Luck.”
Then there are two characters called City Him and City Her, who represent the various strata of New York society, from the hoity-toity to the hoi polloi. The least likely candidate for City Her is K.B. Mercer (AKA K.B. Merrill), who usually plays funky Fritz Theatre weirdos, not light-hearted Christmas musical characters. But she gets to use her (quite acceptable) alto voice and, more important, to indulge her comic and character wit to play Italian, French and Indian working-class and snooty, bah-humbug aristocrats.
However, the most interesting addition to the play is its centerpiece, a prototypical turn-of-the-century New York newsboy, who serves as narrator, commentator, facilitator and moralizer. Ironically, his name is Willy Porter, a winking nod to the real O. Henry, William Sydney Porter. Fifth grader Bix Bettwy just about steals the show. He has amazing stage presence, and a voice to match, though he’s challenged beyond 10 year-old capabilities by some of the non-melodic, unpredictable melodies in the score. As the loving young couple, Jon Lorenz and Chrissy Vögele have an appealing chemistry, and she has a really lovely voice, which is showcased to great effect in her wistful ballad, “The Same Girl.”
The play retains the casual, conspiratorial tone of O. Henry, and his fascination with New Yorkers. Deborah Gilmour Smyth has capably directed. But somehow, all the parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole. There’s more than a whiff of Sondheim in the score, and this cast can’t always handle the rat-a-tat lyrics. But the costumes are charming, the snowfall is terrific and the sentiments are commendable, if at times heavy-handed: besides the selfless gifts of love, there’s social commentary on greed and poverty and inescapable class distinctions. You could ponder far worse this time of year…..
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.