Marcus Truschinski and Tracy Michelle Arnold in American Players Theatre's The Gift of the Magi.
What a smart idea for American Players Theatre to use the cozy, indoor Touchstone stage for a winter production. I imagine that after the snow falls, this woodland venue, with its twinkling lights and welcoming fire pits, will only get more magical. Another smart move is tapping "The Gift of the Magi" as source material. O. Henry's sliver of a story, about a couple's selfless generosity with one another at Christmas, is the basis for the APT play that opened Friday night. Like most of the company's ventures, The Gift of the Magi is charming and well executed.
APT's musical adaptation is written and directed by James DeVita, with songs by Josh Schmidt (music) and DeVita (lyrics). Despite its slightness, the beloved story resonates. But at times I wondered if its framework is enough to support the evening's proceedings.
In 1908, Jim and Della (the married-in-real-life couple Marcus Truschinski and Tracy Michelle Arnold) live in a New York City tenement. They already were struggling to make ends meet before Jim's salary was cut. He's a hard-working tailor, and she manages their tiny flat and tinier budget while augmenting his earnings by working as a laundry woman. Cheerful even in these dire times, the two are trying to come up with ideal Christmas gifts for each other. As O. Henry, Brian Mani presides, acting as narrator and playing other characters.
To purchase gifts, the couple give up what's most precious to them. Ironic developments follow. The irony only reinforces their bond when they realize, as characters in holiday shows do, that they are rich in love and happiness.
The actors are joined on stage by cellist Eric Miller and violist Nick Ehlinger. Sometimes they are employed as street musicians, and sometimes they are in the background at the apartment.
This production premiered at APT last winter. It has undergone some tinkering, and seven new songs have been added. Not having seen the original, I don't know which songs are new, but I can say that at times the show seems crowded. Many of the songs are lovely in a simple, wintry, melancholy way. But a few -- as it happens, the catchiest crowd-pleasers -- feel out of place in terms of tone, like Mani's song about New Yorkers' need for moxie, and one about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Arnold is suitably bright-eyed and determined, and her scenes haggling with shopkeepers are appealing. When she perches on a stool prior to getting her long hair shorn, she conveys excitement, dread and vanity with just a turn of her head. In Truschinski's best scenes, he banters good-naturedly with his garment-district boss, and he is buoyed by Ehlinger's sweet singing after learning a Christmas bonus isn't coming. Mani's extended cameos are a treat.
Finding happiness with one another during the holidays, despite stress and financial woes -- this is a timeless message. This show is a delight, despite my minor misgivings. It begins with my favorite Christmas carol, one I rarely get to hear, "We Three Kings," a somber yet hopeful song. It is, like the show it opens, a simple pleasure.