Fort Worth — Two classic American short stories merge into one sweetly seasonal holiday musical in The Gifts of the Magi, currently playing at Jubilee Theatre’s playhouse at Sundance Square in Fort Worth.
That’s not a misprint: most of us read O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” (that’s gift singular) in English class along about middle school; in 1984, composer Randy Courts and lyricist Mark St. Germain combined that Christmassy tale of early 20th-century urban life with O. Henry’s almost-as-famous, equally ironic and considerably more sardonic “The Cop and Anthem,” resulting in a highly successful and oft-revived off-Broadway musical. The plural “gifts” in the title of the musical acknowledges the presence of a second interwoven plot.
The two original stories can be read in about 15 minutes altogether; Courts and St. Germain grabbed little hints from O. Henry’s tightly written, admirably concise narratives to provide enough backstory to fill out a 90-minute, one-act show. Della and Jim, the protagonists of “The Gift of the Magi” gain a history and texture: Sakyiwaa Baah in particular fleshes out her character as a slightly childish, almost needy (and believable) rendition of Della, while Quintin Jones as her husband Jim comes across as proud but tortured by unfulfilled ambition. Anyone who has ever worried about next month’s rent (or how to come up with a decent Christmas present on a tight budget) can identify with the Courts-St. Germain characters as portrayed by Baah and Jones.
Courts and St. Germain also seized O. Henry’s deliberately verbose narrative voice from “The Cop and the Anthem” and transferred that tone to the story’s main character “Soapy,” allowing Dennis Raveneau to create the pretentious but loveable ne’er-do-well in that role. (One might complain that the Courts-St. Germain version softens up Soapy’s final cynical outcome in O. Henry’s original, but, after all, it’s holiday time.
In addition to O. Henry’s characters, the Courts-St. Germain version adds a newsboy named William Porter (which was O. Henry’s real name) as a Greek chorus narrator—a high-energy, high-demand role ably handled by Bryan Blanks. Jeremy Davis and Dominique Brinkley move comfortably and convincingly through multiple roles as passers-by, shopkeepers, waiters, and cops.
Courts and St. Germain further enrich the narrative with quick timely references from the early 20th-century (e.g., the Russian Revolution of 1905, Theodore Roosevelt, and Delmonico’s restaurant); the use of a non-white cast in this Jubilee Theatre production subtly references the great northward migration of African-Americans in the 20th century and the rise of Harlem culture. In the best Jubilee Theatre tradition, this expands the scope of the narrative in both a broader universal direction on one hand and toward a more personal, community-specific reading on the other.
Musically, Courts’ score is pretty much standard 1980s Broadway stuff, offering a well-constructed, skillfully woven commentary that occasionally relies a little too much on set forms (and once or twice becomes frankly derivative) but, on the whole, gets the job done. While the lyrics don’t break any new ground either, it’s still a Christmas show—and a place more for reassurance than ground-breaking.
The vocal demands are considerable: Jones, Baah, and Blanks, while certainly capable, occasionally seem rushed, while Raveneau gives the strongest and most consistent vocal delivery. The choice of a lone acoustic piano onstage as orchestra, beautifully performed by Aimee Hurst-Bozarth (as opposed to the ugly fake electronic and digital versions that crop up frequently in intimate productions of musicals), is ideal and commendable in terms of creating an appropriate atmosphere in this cozy facility.
Bryan Wolford’s simple and efficient sets, dominated by a backdrop of an enlarged, blurry photo of a wintry New York street scene from O. Henry’s era, enhanced the dreamlike aura of the show effectively. Director William Earl Ray’s staging likewise allows the intertwined stories to flow smoothly and naturally toward the satisfyingly tearful ending—and even this cranky old critic reached for his hanky, along with most other audience members.