I’m not a fan of Christmas shows and I don’t have a huge clan to entertain during the holidays. But if I were tasked with keeping a big brood entertained — one that included the whole gamut, from granddads and aunties to parents and toddlers and everything in between — I’d probably settle on the Christmas musical “The Gifts of the Magi,” at Theatrical Outfit through December 23, as an auspicious bet for keeping everyone happy.
It’s a modest little show with broad appeal, one that cleaves closely to all the conventions you’d expect — it looks and feels like a Christmas show — but it’s a step apart from the overworked “Nutcrackers” and “Christmas Carols” that may have crossed the line from “fun family tradition” to “painful duty” some time ago. “Magi” has a solid script, pleasant songs and a strong cast. Grandma would be pleased, I’m sure, and on the night I went, I heard little kids happily giggling in all the right places.
“Magi” is a 1984 musical based on the classic O. Henry short story about an impoverished young couple in New York who each sell their most prized possession to buy a special gift for the other. The script is by playwright Mark St. Germain, who most famously writes plays based on historical figures. Audiences may remember his “Freud’s Last Session,” an imagined conversation between Sigmund Freud and author C.S. Lewis that was given an excellent production at Theatrical Outfit in 2011.
St. Germain is obviously at home in “Magi’s” setting and time period. The story unfolds in a vividly evoked early-20th-century New York, matched by designer Tommy Cox’s simple but evocative set. With a cast of just six — it premiered off-Broadway and is tailor-made for small companies with modest budgets — the show re-creates a busy New York at Christmastime. Cast members Adrienne Reynolds and Jeff McKerley double up parts as “City Him” and “City Her,” variously embodying shopkeepers, butchers, cops, waiters, secretaries and so on. Bernadine Mitchell also does a stellar job as the narrating newspaper seller and becomes a charming and powerful, all-seeing, all-reporting magician hovering over the action.
One of the challenges in bringing “Magi” to the stage is that it’s a very short story: the original work is just three or four pages long, with a twist ending that doesn’t take long to set up or reveal. The play adds some characters, new action and a pre-story, which meet with various levels of success.
It’s interesting to hear more about where the Dillinghams are from, but unsurprising and unrevealing to learn that they were grade-school sweethearts from America’s heartland. Glenn Rainey does an excellent job in a comic side story as a W.C. Fields-like, happy-go-lucky bum, but I found the character surprisingly old-fashioned, and some of the side business starts to feel like filler. With so many comic vignettes, street scenes, little characters and so on, there’s a “get to the gifts already!” feeling that emerges midway through.
But Nick Arapoglou and Caroline Freedland are a charming and believable couple, deftly delineating the young pair’s love for each other and also the stress of their difficult circumstances, while avoiding making things too saccharine or maudlin. Perhaps best of all, the show conveys a convincing message about greed and generosity at Christmastime. Nothing’s ever a totally safe bet when trying to keep a big group entertained, but “The Gifts of the Magi” is worth a shot.