Little holiday musicals are golden at this time of year. And Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts' adaptation of the much-loved O. Henry story, "The Gifts of the Magi," has many of the elements competing off-Loop theaters most desire: a heartwarming story of struggle and love; a modestly sized, child-free cast; a retro patina; and a setting in the big city.
If only it had a few more surprises.
This show actually had its origins in the mid-1980s, when it played Lamb's Theatre in New York on several holiday seasons. St. Germain, who also wrote the excellent "Freud's Last Session," combined "The Gift of the Magi," which deals with a struggling married couple willing to sacrifice everything for each other, with a second O. Henry story called "The Cop and the Anthem," which focuses on one Soapy Smith (Kevin McKillip), a comedic bum who would like to get himself arrested for the holidays and acquire a warm jail cell. With those two stories unfolding simultaneously, St. Germain uses that old device of a newsboy narrator (Nate Lewellyn) and, alas, two characters with the unfortunate names of The City — Him (Gerald Richardson) and The City — Her (Heather Townsend). Any time a character is playing a city, that is generally cause for alarm. It sure rings here.
When "Magi" is focused on the impecunious married couple, very nicely played by Jason Richards and very talented newcomer Chelsea Morgan, it's on reasonably secure footing with a much-loved story. Morgan, especially, has a great deal of charm and Mark Lococo's Porchlight Music Theatre staging of this story of this likable pair is simple and quite lovely.
But once we venture out onto the streets beyond, both the prosaic material and Lococo's production take on a rather arch quality.
It's not that Lewellyn's newsboy is a lousy guide — on the contrary; he's a charming young actor, just as McKillip is a skilled physical comedian. It's just that both characters feel here like such cliches. And both Richardson, who has vocal issues, and Townsend, who needs to turn down the dial a good few notches, don't seem to belong in any world you recognize. All of that would be easier if the score popped with a little more exuberance, if the overall stakes were somehow higher, and if the piece could achieve a greater feeling of unity.
"The Gifts of the Magi" is certainly a well-intended diversion, quite brief and suitable for all. And Elizabeth Doran's musical direction is very solid. But the show falls between a lot of sweet spots: It's not expansive enough for you to feel as if you are experiencing the pageantry of 1905 New York, but it's also too diffuse in style and focus for you to fully feel like you are sharing in a difficult but very intimate Christmas.
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $39 at 773-327-5252 or stage773.com