THE GIFT OF THE MAGI
at Saint Ignatius Theatre
They're simple props--a watch and chain, a tortoiseshell comb, some human hair--but in O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi they unleash nearly as much Christmas sentiment as Dickens evoked from a quartet of spirits and a flurry of flashbacks. With its surprise ending acting as a testimonial to a poor couple's love (and a reminder to tell loved ones what you want for Christmas), The Gift of the Magi is O. Henry's unabashed proof that "life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating."
The smiles predominate in Lindy Productions' musical retelling of this literary Christmas present from 1905. This is the Chicago premiere of New York composer Peter Ekstrom's popular 1981 treatment; for the last eight years this version has successfully played Louisville's Actors Theatre; next season it opens at New York's City Court Theatre.
Blessed with a supple and melodically mellow score, the two-person, 45-minute show remains much more faithful to the original than Stormfield Theatre's treatment, which added one too many couples to what is really a less-is-more story.
Though his lyrics are as predictable as his rhymes, Ekstrom's songs sweetly flavor O. Henry's Christmas corn about the poor couple who give up their most prized possessions to get each other the most perfect Christmas gift. The first scene's duet, with its Handelian flourishes, may be a tad too cute, but there are many more well-sung delights, like the lovers' wish-fulfillment ballad "If We Had Money," which neatly turns into an infectious waltz.
The final scene, which is refreshingly not played as the usual two-handkerchief weepfest, contains a clever spoof of opera recognition scenes, as Jim intones "Your hair is gone" for what sounds like a couple of hundred times. By the end, when he intones "You are my only real treasure," you believe it--musically and dramatically.
Joseph Popp's stage direction never lets O. Henry's heart rending get too cloying, while musical director Gregg Opelka (his busy piano is our orchestra) clearly sympathizes with the songs and brings out their best. (But the tape of Christmas songs before the show dilutes the effect of Ekstrom's original music when we finally hear it.)
Like Stephanie Galfano and Rick Boynton in Stormfield's version, Logan Bazar and Mary Ringstad make a perfect couple. Bazar's rich baritone and Mandy Patinkin-like phrasing make us taste Jim's frustration at having so little to give Della to demonstrate the love he feels for her. With a sweet soprano that manages to sound intimate even in the large auditorium at Saint Ignatius, Ringstad caresses Ekstrom's Sondheim-esque score for all it's worth. Her voice is a joy.