The Gifts of the Magi
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Dec. 14, 2001
The Gifts of the Magi: Poor at ChristmasState Theater,
through December 23
Running Time: 1 hr, 20 min
This State Theater Company production is a musical based on two short stories by O. Henry, a man dear to Austin and America. And when I say short stories, I mean short: If you read the titular "Magi" story slowly, it might take you 10 whole minutes to finish it. But it's beautiful, deep, and meaningful, so in case you don't know it, I am loath to give too much away. Suffice it to say that it concerns Della and Jim, young marrieds living poor in New York City around the turn of the last century. As you might have guessed, it's Christmas, and Della and Jim both want to buy each other a gift, but neither has any money to speak of. So, in order to achieve their mutual goal, each must make a sacrifice of a very personal, considered, and above all, loving nature.
Set designer David Potts fills the stage with two-dimensional cutouts of buildings that tower up into the air, and with the assistance of Richard Winkler's lights, these buildings most often are drenched with a rich, sentimental, pastel glow. Occasionally dozens of tiny windows light up, giving the impression that there are hundreds of little lives being lived behind them. Adding to this cartoonish effect are the props and the furniture, also two-dimensional. Buffy Manners' costumes are heavy and formal and, while not a particularly studied rendition of the period, nevertheless evoke it neatly. Director Robi Polgar's staging is presentational in the extreme, with almost every line of dialogue and song directed straight out at the audience. The performers are polished and professional, as you would expect from such a large gathering of Equity performers. Most effective are Paul Norton as Soapy Smith, a bum attempting to get arrested on Christmas Eve so that he can be warm and well-fed for the winter (a character from another O. Henry story added to the "Magi" story to help expand it to a full-length musical), and Jill Blackwood in the role of Della, so beautiful and luminous that she almost glows as brightly as the North Star we eventually see shining through the night.
The production has its problems, but one of them stands above all the others: the musical itself. There's barely a memorable song in it. The majority of the numbers by Randy Courts and Mark St. Germain sound generic in the most uninspired sense, one bit of Courts' music sounding very much like every other. In addition, the dialogue by St. Germain is trite and feels beside the point -- which isn't surprising, considering the length of O. Henry's "Magi" story and the necessity of somehow expanding it to a full evening. The exception to this is the final scene in the show, which was lifted almost entirely from O. Henry's story and strikes the perfect Christmas note -- which only makes the rest of the dialogue stand out in horrible contrast. Certainly, there are more effective Christmas shows than this one. Perhaps next year, the State might consider staging one of those instead.