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Like much literature, the short stories of William Sidney Porter -- who became famous under the pseudonym O. Henry -- suffer greatly from the way they're taught. Just as Edgar Allan Poe is often reduced to an "inventor of models" (the detective and the sci-fi story), O. Henry has all the juice sucked out of him by being designated a perfecter of an especially American phenomenon: the ironic short story. His use of coincidence, reversals of fortune, false façades, surprise endings, and unintended consequences are breathtaking in the way they are delivered with such fatalistic leanness. But when the literary blueprint is unrolled and those devices checked off one by one with a bony, didactic finger, the knock-your-breath-out pleasure they provide dwindles to a tap on the chest.
It's one thing to pick apart and highlight symbolism, and quite another to pull up the tracks of plot as the story hurtles along. When you're that aware of the science of motion, the ride loses its thrills. William Porter, who began the 20th century knocking out stories from a prison cell after embezzling money to start a literary magazine and help his consumptive wife, would surely find any departure from surprise the wrong road to choose.
And so I couldn't help think that New York composers Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts had taken two O. Henry stories and imposed a "musical" model on them for The Gifts of the Magi the way lit teachers harness them with an analytical paradigm. As a result, the opportunity to showcase the best features of stage musicals and O. Henry is diminished. Although there are several captivating moments in the production currently being staged by Plano Repertory Theatre (and they almost all involve one reliably versatile actor), director Steven Shayle-Rhodes and his cast of six can't quite escape the generic flabbiness of the songs. And since, of course, the surprise ending of The Gifts of the Magi is no longer a surprise to me, I spent much of the show rowing toward the inevitable finale, where tears of joy found me wishing for one of those plastic wrap guards Gallagher provides the front row to protect them from flying watermelon scraps. It's a shame that the musical material wasn't stronger, because I attended the performance with the hope of something a little fresher for the holidays than A Christmas Carol -- yet a production I'd never seen before felt just as familiar.
The Gifts of the Magi is actually composed of two O. Henry stories -- the title one and a lesser-known exercise called The Cop and the Anthem, based on the author's years spent trolling the back alleys of New York with vagrants and prostitutes. Narrated by a newspaper vendor named Willy Porter (Jill Brown) against a marvelous pseudo-impressionistic nighttime mural painting of turn-of-the-century Manhattan, we watch as dirty, poor, and frustrated married couple Jim (Stan Graner) and Della (Kacy Cook) mourn their tiny fake tree with no presents beneath it. Woven somewhat inexplicably throughout their story are the misadventures of Soapy Smith (Nye Cooper), a "gentleman of leisure" (read: homeless beggar) who wants desperately to get arrested so he can enjoy Christmas with food, shelter, and warmth.
Most of the actors are possessed of impressive voices, but the tunes they launch into could almost serve as parodies, so formulaic are they: "Greed" is a rote gleeful plunge into Christmas commercialism by shopkeepers (Joe Thomas and Dawn Bauer, who play a variety of city-dwellers) who revel in the impoverished married couple who cannot afford their wares. Another, "How Much to Buy My Dream," reminded me of the Disney knockoff sung by a yearning Satan in the cinematic South Park, only it's not as good.
The cast was uniformly top-notch, although Jill Brown as the scrappy narrator tended to overemphasize some of her dialogue to the audience with a forced aw-shuckiness. A few more performances should see her ease into the role. At a Thursday-night preview, though, the audience snapped to attention and laughed every time Nye Cooper strolled on as the dandyish, sooty Soapy Smith, who can't get arrested to save Christmas. At one point in mid-tune, he did almost lose his modest singing voice, which seemed huskier than usual, but his comic instincts and character concentration never frayed. When I go back and compare the memory of Cooper's most recent performances for Pegasus Theatre -- in Unrequited Love's a Bore and Reefer Madness -- I can once again only marvel at having witnessed a very rare phenomenon: a 25 year-old character actor.
All of his performances are wholly distinct creations separated by time and circumstance and personality, but utterly comfortable and at home within each set of variants. The Gifts of the Magi crackles with articulate energy every time Cooper steps onstage. In fact, I wanted to see an entire musical based on the sad life of a turn-of-the-century bum, a rootless man who adopts a proud, aristocratic demeanor to combat the vermin and the disease and his apathetic fellow dwellers during an especially cold New York Christmas.
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