What a charming, unassuming delight! David Christian Azarow and Hannah Price have taken O. Henry's beloved tale of Christmastime irony, "The Gift of the Magi," and turned it into a lovingly crafted new musical that should become 13th Street Rep's yearly gift to New Yorkers.
The chief glory here is the score. Azarow and Price have written the genuine article: a musical comedy score that is nostalgically melodic - perfectly suited to the turn-of-the-last-century era in which the musical is set - and yet still contemporary in its musical idioms. The melodies soar while the emotions run deep, and very quickly it becomes impossible not to be swept up in the familiar tale of Dell and Jim, the struggling young couple whose gifts of love provide the ironic denouement.
The production, under the assured direction of Robert Kreis, was refreshingly modest, and that was one of the reasons it succeeded so well. By not attempting to impress with flashy directorial inventiveness, Kreis's straightforward approach let the considerable strengths of the material shine through with a sweetness that never became saccharine and a hefty dose of sentiment that never degenerated into sentimentality. And even though the outcome was a foregone conclusion, when Dell and Jim revealed their famous sacrifices the rush of honest emotion was heady, thrilling, and completely earned.
Kreis also scored with his cast - 13th Street Rep has always been a haven for young, inexperienced artists to hone their craft, and this production was a bonanza of fresh young talent. As Dell and Jim, Cole Razzano and Darin Guerrasio were perfect, their lovely voices (particularly Razzano's) capturing and revealing every nuance of their characters' emotions. Gyda Arber had some very funny moments as a not-so-subtle owner of a beauty salon, and Bob Manganaro, John Jordan, and Nicholas Mitchell stole the show as a delightful trio of bumbling clerks in an early scene and later as harried shopkeepers on Christmas Eve.
Visually the show was necessarily spartan, although the feel of a lavish production was achieved with a smart mix of simple scenic pieces (beautifully designed and executed by Bob Olsen), and simple, unadorned lighting (by Jeff Carnell) that allowed Tom Harlan's colorful and richly detailed period costumes to dominate. The show looked like a spare but authentic Currier and Ives lithograph come to enchanting life.
While some might miss the gingery irony of O. Henry's original tale, Azarow and Price's The Gift of Love stands on its own because of its wonderfully delicious new score, and because of its heartfelt and genuinely honest belief in itself. It is a "gift of love," and hopefully it will return every year to uplift and enchant.
(Also featuring Sharon Abramzon, Erin Leslie Colston, Melissa Gavin, Gavin Smith, and Ilona Tykotski.)
Book: 1 Music: 2 Lyrics: 2
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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita