December at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is always a joyous time, thanks to its grand holiday shows. But this year the theater is veering away from spectacle, offering a more intimate take on a Christmas favorite, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” The production will be a world premiere of a musical written by Artistic Director John Miller-Stephany, writer Jeffrey Hatcher, lyricist Maggie-Kate Coleman and composer Andrew Cooke.
The musical “Magi” is an extended one-act that clocks in under 90 minutes and has a cast of only four, but it hints at a world outside the play’s immediate setting. The creative team wanted to keep the tightness of Henry’s story while using original characters and musical numbers to breathe life into that implied world. “It’s a delicate piece, and we didn’t want it to be overblown. It wouldn’t really work as a big holiday extravaganza,” Miller-Stephany said.
Jesse Carrey-Beaver and Laura Sudduth play the leads Jim and Della, and Michael Keyloun and Sandy York play a multicharacter ensemble of everyone that Jim and Della encounter throughout their day, including a beggar met by Jim and an outrageously unsatisfied customer Della meets at a department store.
“We serve as a narrative nudge for a short bit, observing or commenting on their predicament,” said Keyloun, who plays a staggering 13 different characters. York and Keyloun both have experience playing multiple roles in other plays, and enjoy the challenge of keeping track of all the accents and costume changes. “I specialize in running around backstage,” York joked. “I don’t really have a favorite role. The real treat is getting to play all the different characters,” she said.
Several of the newly written roles were drawn with inspiration from people in other O. Henry stories. “We were looking not just at how people talked in 1905, but how they talked in O. Henry’s 1905,” Coleman said. “His language is rich, full of twists and turns, and so funny, but we also wanted it to be clear enough to hear in the lyrics, so that was a fun challenge.”
In contrast to a Broadway-style musical, “Magi” aims to do more with less, letting the music work its magic in harmony with the story. “Jeffrey gives me a wonderful palette to work with,” Coleman said, “then Andrew comes in and everything lifts, so it really feels like a lush orchestra.” Unlike most productions at The Rep, this musical makes use of an open pit with a five-piece musical ensemble, with composer Cooke on keyboard in front of the stage.
“Magi” is familiar territory, but its strength is in the way it distills a broad message into a nicely wrapped package. “It moves so fast, it’s accessible for people of all ages, and it’s such an elegantly constructed tale — simple but very potent,” York said. “Sometimes we tend to compound stuff with love,” Keyloun said. “It’s nice to be reminded of the real simplicity of relationships.” “It’s not about the object,” Miller-Stephany added, “but about the act of giving.”
All those feeling less like Jim and Della and more like the Grinch can cross the street to find a more cynical and comical take on the holidays. The Rep will perform “The Santaland Diaries,” based on the essay by David Sedaris about being a 33-year-old elf employed in “Santaland” at a Macy’s department store, at its Black Box Theatre, 518 Main St.
“I think it would be fun to see both productions in one night,” Miller-Stephany said. “They’re both exploring the pressure and stress that we go through brought on by tradition,” Coleman said.
After airing many times on NPR and appearing in Sedaris’ best-selling essay collection “Holidays on Ice,” “Santaland Diaries” has become a well-loved addition to the alternative Christmas canon. The humorist’s wit and acerbic perspective shine through in his real-life comedy of errors, reminding us not to take the commercial side of the holidays too seriously. The play, adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, is directed by Benjamin McGovern and stars Grant Prewitt.
“The Gift of the Magi” runs Friday, Dec. 1, through Sunday, Dec. 24, at The Rep’s main stage, 601 Main Street. “The Santaland Diaries” runs Wednesday, Dec. 6, through Sunday, Dec. 24, at the Black Box Theatre, 518 Main St. Performances are staggered to allow for patrons to see both plays on one visit. Find tickets and show times at therep.org.