A story well told – Isthmus


Every year when I take out the boxes of Christmas decorations, I browse through the tinsel, tinsel and ornaments that my children made in school to find a stack of Christmas cards collected over the past ten years, neatly arranged. at the bottom. And each time it’s a nice surprise, browsing the greetings from years past, remembering the feelings of excitement and warmth they aroused, and revisiting friends’ news as if I were reading it. for the first time.

American Players Theater’s production of The gift of the Magi is like that. It’s a story I’ve heard over and over again since I was a kid. This is the third time this particular adaptation has been part of my holiday entertainment, but on opening night the genuinely moving production looked like a rediscovered treasure – a delightful combination of nostalgia, wonder and affirmation. .

Based on the new classic by O. Henry, this small-scale musical is a collaboration between senior company member James DeVita and accomplished composer Josh Schmidt. While the other day before the holidays, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, often stuff dozens of cast members into big party scenes, this Gift of the Magi takes the opposite approach: he brings the new thin to life with just three actors and two musicians. Just as the plot takes away much of the Christmas pageantry, this production makes great use of a talented small cast to embody the story of Jim and Della – the newlyweds in New York City in 1908, whose love one for the other goes beyond any concern for themselves. And while their extravagant gifts look mismatched when they finally open them on Christmas Eve, the sentiment behind the whole season is perfectly distilled here.

Clotheslines crisscross the stage in front of floating windows to represent the crowded New York City apartment building where Jim (a young Marcus Truschinski) and Della (the energetic Kelsey Brennan) live in an apartment on the third floor. The lines are laden with white lace blouses, bloomers, sheets and socks, waiting to be livened up. Likewise, when Jim and Della are first introduced, they enter through the back of the house dressed in outfits made entirely of cream and off-white – like an antique textile or the yellowed casing found at the back of the room. box – while waiting to share the story with us.

As they begin to inhabit the musical holiday tale, splashes of color appear: a piece of mistletoe, a green skirt under Della’s white apron, a pink waistcoat, and a red headband over Jim’s hat. The sets also contain pops of red and green, revealed when drop cloths are peeled off the furniture by Brian Mani, as author O. Henry and narrator of the production.

Contained on a series of small platforms, the apartment is shared with the production’s two musicians – Hilary Caldwell and Alicia Storin – also dressed in period clothing. It makes the small apartment even more claustrophobic. (Elegant costume design by Samantha C. Jones and simple yet romantic stage design by Madelyn Yee.)

To extend a short story to a full evening of theater, DeVita and Schmidt spend the beginning of the story setting the scene. It gives us a lot of context for the hardscrabble world that Jim and Della navigate. They also dramatically expand the stages with traders, colleagues, and fellow New Yorkers. In addition to commenting on the action, Mani plays various colorful characters, with the simple addition of a hat, coat or glasses and a new voice or matching accent. With each charming new character, he takes audiences deeper into his Christmas tale, like a favorite uncle urging guests to come and sit by the fire, inviting them to enjoy a cup of holiday cheer.

Kelsey Brennan, Acting Senior Company Member, brings a bright and upbeat sensibility to Della. Her love for Jim may seem like a girl, but there’s nothing silly about saving money as she desperately tries to save for Jim’s Christmas present, carefully budgeting and rebudgeting, and haggling with them. traders on the price of shopping.

Jim, on the other hand, is waiting for a big Christmas bonus from one of his tailor clients to pay for an ornate present for Della. They are both disappointed with the amount of money they have to spend, but Jim remembers being resilient and having a strict work ethic. He thinks he is a very lucky man, even though his salary has recently been cut and the future for those around him looks bleak. They are practical people and extravagant lovers, so delighted with each other that the rest of the world is falling apart.

Schmidt’s original songs are beautifully rendered on a cello, violin, piano, and sometimes ukulele, performed on stage as part of the storytelling ensemble. The musicians perform complicated parts that sound like a pit orchestra much more complete than that created by their two pairs of hands. The low register accompaniment, at times dark, supports the beautiful voices of the cast, which are simple, warm and sweet – and are ideal for musical theater.

The melodies and lyrics constantly delight with clever, singing choruses. The climax of the show, musically, features the entire cast in harmony, filling the theater with their meticulous chorus. Another memorable melodic scene is Jim’s interaction with a busker (Caldwell), whose incredibly expressive voice and musical versatility shine as she strums on her ukulele. She sings a folk ballad in angelic tones that is delicious associated with harmonies close to the cast, and millions of miles away from Christmas clichés.

Malkia Stampley uses a soft touch to direct the production, bringing the characters from inside their tiny apartment, pushing them into the world of New York City, then welcoming them into their little nest as the story unfolds. . Jessica Bess Lanius provides the entire cast with simple yet effective dance moves that make lovers appear to be swaying to their favorite song.

This iteration of DeVita and Schmidt’s musical is the most concentrated of the three productions I’ve seen. Presumably the material has tightened up with each release, but there are still a couple of songs that, while reminiscent of the era, do nothing to move the story forward and feel like filler.

The final image in the room is Jim and Della in a simple hug, holding each other as the lights go down. It’s a powerful way to sum up this season of love, with a reminder to rejoice in all of our blessings.

APT will occur The gift of the Magi until December 19. It is also available as a home streaming filmed performance, also through December 19.

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