Peggy Sue Dunigan

APT’s new “Gift of the Magi” enriches the season

By - Dec 2nd, 2010 04:00 am

Eric Miller, Nick Ehlinger (background) and Brian Mani. APT photo by Carissa Dixon.

An elegant present awaits theater audiences among the trees of Spring Green, Wisconsin. American Players Theatre, director/playwright/lyricist James DeVita and composer/lyricist Josh Schmidt have made a festive occasion of the premiere run of their adaptation of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.

Do arrive early, as the show before the show delights all the senses. Fires burn brightly in the crisp Wisconsin air on the terrace overlooking the woods outside the Touchstone Theatre. A brass quintet plays traditional carols in the lobby. A small gift shop in a corner features handcrafted items and a reprint of a vintage version of O. Henry’s classic. Appetizers such as handmade spiced nuts and baked goods, along with beer and wine, tempt you to relax amid frenetic December days.

Within the theater, clotheslines hung with well-worn linens and bloomers, eyelet trimmed slips, lacy handkerchiefs and woolen stockings stretch among the steel girders. Such clothing represents turn-of-the-20th century New York tenement neighborhoods, the “clothesline canyons” where O. Henry set his story.

“Here, in this place, everything is possible,” says Brian Mani, as O. Henry. Mani, as the author-narrator, helps to move along the touching Christmas tale of James and Della Young. Mani’s author is debonair, sophisticated, the very essence of literary tradition. Mani also plays cameo roles, introduces the musicians, directs the onstage action, moves scenery and sings delightfully. Mani’s accomplished acting completed this extraordinary five-person ensemble, which includes violist Nick Ehlinger and cellist Eric Miller.

The musicians accompanied the three cast actors through 17 distinct numbers, including instrumentals and original songs. Ethereal and haunting melodies floated through the theater to embrace the audience and Jim and Della, the young couple struggling to save enough money to buy each other presents on Christmas Eve.

Marcus Truschinski and Tracy Michelle Arnold. APT photo by Carissa Dixon.

Tracy Michelle Arnold and Marcus Truschinski — spouses in real life — played the young couple. Their emotion and their economic hardship are palpable, and it’s easy to extend their story to the uncounted immigrants who worked for pennies an hour in the early 1900’s. Hunger, reduced incomes, turns in fortune and unemployment occupied the population’s mindset then as it does today.

The impressive quintet on stage gave birth to a new dramatic and intimate musical theatrical performance. The songs — with such lyrics as “There ain’t nothing but love that makes the world go round’ or “I want to walk on through to the lucky side of the line“ — pace the show and allow us time to savor the story. The story and the show’s surprises emerge slowly; APT unwraps its gift slowly, as if building Christmas-morning anticipation.

APT, DeVita and Schmidt, along with a host of theater technicians, graciously offered an intelligent and richly sensual evening for any season. As the lights dimmed at the play’s end, O. Henry toasted the couple’s generous sacrifices as testaments to their exceptional love. The audience then toasted the production with refreshments made available when they left the theater. A show such as this awakens body, mind and soul and moves us to celebrate the holiday season in the best way for the best reasons. The Gift of the Magi is a star worth following.

American Players Theatre presents The Gift of the Magi through Dec. 19. Click on the link or call the box office,  608-588-7401 for tickets.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Theater

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