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Gift of the Magi; Ned and Jack 

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GIFT OF THE MAGI

Stormfield Theatre Company

NED AND JACK

Midwest Stageworks

at A.R.C. Gallery

Any theater would love to have an annual gold mine like Goodman's Christmas Carol, a lucrative stocking stuffer that pays the bills for much of the season while providing flop insurance for the riskier experimental enterprises. For two seasons now the Stormfield Theatre Company entry in the Christmas sweepstakes has been Gift of the Magi, a musical adaptation based on the slight but endearing 0. Henry tearjerker. They may be on to something. Though possessing only a tenth of Dickens's scope and depth, the tale -and this treatment--has charm to spare-too much at times; still, excess ambition and an embarrassment of riches are no disgrace, and Gift really does prove a love offering.

Written in 1913, O. Henry's very short story long ago became a Christmas standard loved for its bittersweet surprise ending -- Where two poor lovers discover that "they are the Magi who give the wisest" (from the heart). Only a grinch would give away the ironic twist to those few who don't already know it. That of course was the challenge that faced Ross Lehman (book and lyrics) and Mark Weston (music) in writing their stage version: how to keep a short and sweet tale fresh and warm -- while postponing a well-known ending for some 80 intermissionless minutes. Plus how to keep the sentimentality of the story from dissolving a musical version into pure schmaltz. Plus how to keep the surprise, when it does finally come, just that.

The main strategy apparently is to surround Della and James, the lovers, with Sophie and Dexter, two urbane, world-wise, older friends who narrate, manipulate, and comment on the action, all the time taking an undeserved pride in their often blundering "comic relief' contributions to the happy outcome. An energetic fussbudget, stage manager Sophie sprays the air with lilac scent as she literally sets the scenes (pulling out illustrating panels from Roy Hine's storybook set).

Blithely promising to tell the story- though "the truth will just have to take care of itself," Sophie informs us that "Christmas is for anyone who needs to be told they are loved." That sentiment aside, Sophie, joined by Dexter, starts to recreate the story, beginning by twitting Dexter over his broken engagement to Della. That upset occurred when lovely Della met her true love, James Dillingham Young, while strolling through the park one day. In the best Hollywood-style approach-avoidance mating dance, the lovers "meet cute,, and marry quick.

Their three-year romance, as described by the not so innocent bystanders Sophie and Dexter, forms the musical's 90 percent "prequel" to its 10 percent 0. Henry. Despite youth, hope, pluck, and Della, good-hearted James discovers that he can't run his father's store anywhere but into the ground. Gradually, as Christmas closes in, the elegantly bred Della feels poverty's pinch nipping the bloom from the rose of love. Cherishing each other as much as ever, the. sweethearts want to find ways to prove their love even though they're virtually penniless.

Enlivening (and extending) the action are a dozen wise and witty songs by Lehman and Weston, some of them period pieces (like Dexter and Sophie's vaudevillian two-step "Gal o' Mine" and the lovers' tender "Waltz With Me, Nellie"), but most prove successful and sophisticated Sondheim imitations, like Sophie's textured "When You Tell Me You Love Me." Only one seems out of place, Dexter's serenade "Della.," which he hoofs his way through, making one final plea for Della's affections; unfortunately, coming right before the surprise ending, its padded high jinks spoil the mood.

The same charge too often applies to Dexter and Sophie themselves. Intrusive and de trop, they might be better kept outside the simple story altogether; their tart abrasiveness slightly acidifies what is better left to James and Della alone. Also, by backing up so far in order to set up the final twist, this version is like a raconteur who ruins his punch line with too much detail; the slice of life ends up a lot more generous than 0. Henry intended.

Still, when the staging is engaging, you can't keep a good formula down. Lehman and Stormfield artistic director Terry McCabe have worked a lot of kinks out of last year's version: the script and score feel as sincere as- the subtext. Though Della's occasional deadpan sarcasms come off as too contemporary, Stephanie Galfano, a real find, gives 0. Henry's wedding-cake wife both brains and guts -and never loses her character in her songs; intelligent and on the money, Galfano's reactions are a joy to watch. Without indulging in cloying schmaltz, Rick Boynton's ardent James proves true-blue in a part he could easily have covered in plaster and sugar. It also helps that Boynton's singing, just big enough for the Stormfield stage (like all the singing here), comes artlessly from the heart, a credit to Kingsley Day's musical direction.

Lynn Baber's chirpy, matchmaking Sophie is a true descendant of Eve Arden's wisecracking confidantes; with a bell-like warble and mincing steps, Baber brings Sophie a deft and dithering intensity. Brian-Mark Conover is equally effective as polished, foolish Dexter, a stuffed shirt whom the play punctures whenever it needs a laugh. Conover takes his punishment with grace and good humor.

Ned and Jack is far from sentimental, but it too celebrates the sacrifices one friend may make for another. Sheldon Rosen's affectionate portrayal of the bond between actor John Barrymore and playwright Edward Sheldon is a brilliant study in contrasts: Barrymore the boozing, womanizing, flamboyant extrovert who has just opened in his greatest success., Hamlet, and is already sick of the whole thing; and the elegant, selfeffacing Sheldon who, having written some of Barrymore's biggest vehicles, asks for little of the limelight himself.

What brings them together isn't Barrymore's triumph (Sheldon missed the opening), it's Sheldon's illness. Stricken with a rare degenerative disease that will eventually turn his every muscle "to stone," Sheldon is wrestling with real-life tragedy in a way --that Barrymore's Hamlet could I only mime. This young writer, whom Barrymore accuses of never losing control, has to hold in everything that his friend can exorcise nightly. In the course of a very drunken, freewheeling all-night confessional, Jack learns humility and Ned courage as they pool their creative strengths.

Directed by Kristin Overn, this Midwest Stageworks Chicago premiere offers many strong moments that somehow never add up to consistent characters. Warren Monteiro has the right vocal rhythms and physical swagger for Barrymore, but he brings an overly intellectual tentativeness to lines already literary enough to start with ("I'd rather regret what I have done than regret what I haven't"). Part of Monteiro's energy lapses are due to the lack of even a passive stage presence in Domenic Sfreddo's Ned, a too silent sufferer who -acts like he's holding in nothing more than his next cue: Ned's conflict of preserving his independence despite his encroaching invalidism is nowhere suggested by Sfreddo's exasperating evenhandedness. (Barrymore here needs his foil as much as Hamlet did.) Eamon Hunt appears in a cameo as Danny, Ned's valetsecretary, a manservant who believes religion will cure Ned's ailment. In this production, however., the cure for Ned is for Sfreddo to act out his character's repression: instead his withdrawal is so complete we just don't give a damn.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David C. Renar.

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