- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

It’s depressing to be out of work, but even more so during the holidays. Everywhere you look, people are merrily spending money, and no matter what anyone says, it seems that all forms of holiday cheer come with a price tag. While everyone else rushes to the mailbox in anticipation of cards and packages, the cash-strapped look for checks.

This all-too-real predicament is the subject of the musical “The Gifts of the Magi,” a mild blend of two O. Henry stories adapted by Mark St. Germain with music by Randy Courts.

Both stories deal with money — either the lack of it or the desire to get rid of it. Newlyweds Della (Trinity Baker) and Jim (Benjamin Eakeley) are recent transplants from the Midwest to New York City. Even at the dawn of the 20th century, the Big Apple could be a cold and inhospitable place — as Jim finds out as he combs the want ads and pounds the pavement looking for a job.

His young wife stays at home, taking in sewing and fretting about their future. Times are tough, but Della holds onto her love for her husband and her desire to maintain the holiday tradition of unwrapping presents on Christmas Eve. She hopes the $1.97 she has squirreled away will buy Jim a present that will signify how much she adores and admires him.

Similarly, Jim wants to show his darling Della how much he appreciates her confidence and trust in him. However, he has less money than his wife. Anyone who has read O. Henry’s holiday classic knows how this story turns out — Della and Jim, through unselfish acts, realize the true value of giving.

In the other story, genial bum Soapy Smith (Sal Mistretta) has a cash-flow problem in that he wishes people would stop dropping coins into his dilapidated hat. You see, Soapy desires to take a little vacation, courtesy of the New York penal system. All he wants for Christmas is to be nabbed for vagrancy and to spend the winter in a warm cell with three squares a day. Trouble is, folks are so filled with the holiday spirit that even a bum can’t get arrested.

The two stories are intertwined through a narrator, a sweet-voiced newspaper carrier named Willy Porter (Anthony Manough), who knows all three main characters and comments on the goings-on. “The Gifts of the Magi” is also populated with The City-Him (Darrel Blackburn) and The City-Her (Lisa Howard), who portray everything from street walkers and Irish cops to Park Avenue swells.

In its favor, the musical does not portray poverty as romantic. Instead, in the case of Jim, it can erode a man — and a marriage. The sunny side of destitution is seen in the character of Soapy Smith, and, given the depth of emotion plumbed in the story of Jim and Della, it is an uneasy pairing. The two stories might seem to go together well in theory, but in reality, the mingling is forced.

“The Gifts of the Magi” is pleasant enough, but slight. The music lies liltingly on the ears and is well-sung by the cast, but it isn’t memorable in the least. The show, which runs little longer than an hour, also feels padded and drawn-out.

In “Gifts of the Magi,” the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts has bestowed a unique present — a show that does not tax the mind or the emotions. It is the Starbucks drive-through of holiday musicals, a quick shot of spirit, and off you go.

**

WHAT: “The Gifts of the Magi,” adapted from the stories of O. Henry by Mark St. Germain (book) and Randy Courts (music).

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (with 2 p.m. matinees on selected Wednesdays and Thursdays). Through Dec. 28.

TICKETS: $15 to $35

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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