Coming from an immigrant family and unfamiliar with most classic American holiday-themed stories, I got a ticket for the Walnut’s The Gifts of the Magi to experience a Christmas tale set in early 20th-century New York City. In this musical adaptation of the classic O. Henry story, Mark St. Germain (book and lyrics) and Randy Courts (music and lyrics) attempt to bring to life a historic holiday tale about the true meaning of giving.
Della and Jim up close
Narrated by the charming paperboy Willy Porter (Malcom Bishop), the musical follows the story of Della (Alanna J. Smith) and Jim Dillingham (Sean Thompson), an unemployed married couple struggling to make ends meet in New York. Without enough money for rent or food, they each secretly sacrifice prized possessions to be able to give each other a Christmas gift.
Staged at the Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3, the musical plays to a very intimate room, so close to the stage that we can see the glimmer in the actors’ eyes. Directed by Jesse Bernstein, the actors move with fluidity and poise through the ever-changing settings on the small stage. Jamison Foreman (music and vocal direction) showcased the multitalented ensemble, impressively playing several different instruments onstage.
An outdated script
But Smith and Thompson as the central couple don’t have much chemistry or charisma, making it difficult to invest in their melodrama, and the characters lack realism and depth. The supporting cast, including Jamison Foreman (The City-Him) and Amanda Jill Robinson (The City-Her), shine more than the leads do, providing breaks from the main story with brief moments of humor and heart. Soapy Smith (Bill Van Horn), a homeless man who wants to get arrested so he can reside in a warm jail cell instead of a cold winter park bench, also brings some levity with musical numbers interwoven throughout the story.
The paperboy’s line describing how the couple “hoped their love would be enough in a world that was less” sums up the story’s core, still valuable in a time of ever-increasing materialism, greed, and consumerism. Although a timely holiday reminder, the musical fails to enchant beyond its heartfelt message. The intermission-less 80 minutes felt very long—evidenced by the audience member in the second row who fell asleep in plain sight halfway through opening night.
Although themes of sacrifice, generosity, and the power of love remain timeless, this outdated script no longer holds up in 2019. Clichéd and cheesy scenes, punchlines, and dialogue prove that no matter how nimble the singing, set design, and direction, a play cannot survive a script that is neither engaging nor stimulating.
What, When, Where
The Gifts of the Magi. By Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts. Directed by Jesse Bernstein. Through December 22, 2020, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Walnut Street Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons wishing to purchase wheelchair seating should call (215) 574-3550, ext. 6, rather than ordering online.