According to Maggie-Kate Coleman, lyricist for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s original musical “The Gift of the Magi,” it is not uncommon for new musicals to be in development for five years or more. Imagine, then, the daunting task of mounting such an undertaking in less than one. But that’s exactly what The Rep, under the direction of John Miller-Stephany, has done. Using O. Henry’s famous short story of love and sacrifice, Jeffrey Hatcher (in his 90s, a dead-ringer for Sigmund Freud) has written a solid book, and composer Andrew Cooke’s versatility — from sweeping romantic ballads to quirky tango-inspired comic tunes — will have you pleasantly humming along without even realizing it.
The play is centered on Jim and Della, a poor newlywed couple who have promised not to buy each other anything for their first Christmas together. Jesse Carrey-Beaver and Laura Sudduth portray these young lovers with an engaging innocence, and their vocal talents and dance skills are impressive. Only two other characters exist in this activate-your-imagination interpretation, appropriately dubbed “Wise Man” and “Wise Woman.” These two (played by Michael Keyloun and Sandy York) also portray the supporting cast, requiring them to change costumes, on average, every two and a half minutes. Keyloun’s and York’s chameleonic act is positively awe-inspiring; with each new iteration, they give their characters different accents, different mannerisms, different souls.
Mike Nichols’ set is delightful and appropriate to the nature of the show. Miller-Stephany and Hatcher intended to engage the audience’s fancy as much as possible, and the set’s series of platforms and stairs allow for interesting visual levels of performance without creating too literal an interpretation of space. On stage right, a collage of window panes hangs midair, with lights behind changing from a homey yellow candlelight to a more industrial white light, depending on what the scene calls for. The effect of gently falling snow is created with a cascade of tiny, soft white lights.
There are a few hiccups, though, any discussion of which should come with the following caveat: This reviewer attended “The Gift of the Magi” on its final preview night, and the show was subject to changes from the director right up until opening night.
While the first song, “Sunrise, Stanton Street,” is playful and conveys the guilelessness of young lovers, the repeated lyric passed back and forth (“Mrs. Jones!” “Mr. Jones!”) becomes, toward the end, a bit tedious. And while the actors are great dancers, some of the choreography seems forced (they do an odd shoulder tick and head cock during “The Tick-Tock Song” that does, indeed, seem like a tic). And, with the last line of one of the songs being “Giving is what Christmas is about,” the couple seems so fixated on just buying something for their significant other that it borders on materialism, making the characters — at least initially — a bit difficult to like.
After all, the original O. Henry story is not so much about his watch and her hair, or the chain and the combs, but about loving someone so much you’re willing to sacrifice what’s important to you in service to them. Fortunately, with a twist at the end worthy of O. Henry himself, we do finally get to see that sacrifice — and what that sacrifice can mean years down the road. For those paying attention throughout, the twist pays off double, explaining some of the most prosaic details from earlier in the show. Kudos to playwright Hatcher.
The finale, in which the actors musically proclaim “Love isn’t measured by what we buy,” was great and days after the show this writer found herself singing the refrain from the song “An Exchange,” which Della and the Wise Woman sing when negotiating just how much hair Della is going to sell.
“The Gift of the Magi” runs through Dec. 24; Beer Night with Stone’s Throw Brewery is Dec. 7, starting at 6 p.m. The sign-interpreted performance is at 7 p.m. Dec. 13, a raffle to support The Rep’s Education Scholarship Fund will be held at the 7 p.m. Dec. 19 performance, and an after-party is set for Dec. 23.
Curtain times on some nights will allow theatergoers to also see “The Santaland Diaries,” the humorous one-man show about a jaded department-store elf written by David Sedaris, on the same evening as “Magi.” “The Santaland Diaries,” which will be performed in the Black Box Theatre in the Rep Annex on Main Street, opens Friday, Dec. 8.