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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010

American Players Theatre Presents ‘Gift of the Magi’

Touchstone plays home to company’s first holiday production

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One of American literature’s simplest, most heartfelt tales will help one of Wisconsin’s fastest-rising theater companies take a quantum leap into the competitive field of holiday entertainment. The end result will likely be equal parts elegance and simplicity, clothed with just the right seasonal sentiment.

Thanks to the construction last year of the Touchstone, its small indoor auditorium, American Players Theatre (APT) is offering its first-ever holiday production. The Gift of theMagi, O. Henry’s short story about a young couple who sacrifice their prized possessions to buy each other Christmas gifts, has been adapted to a musical format by APT company member and author James DeVita and composer Josh Schmidt. The play’s 26 performances run Nov. 26-Dec. 19 in the intimate 201-seat Touchstone on APT’s Spring Green campus.

Going head to head with other, more elaborate holiday productions while occupying a small rural space an hour’s drive from the nearest large city during a season of questionable weather may be a challenge for some troupes, but APT is confident of success. The small cast of three actors and two musicians has helped contain costs, and APT sold half of its roughly 5,000 tickets during the first two weeks of availability, according to David Frank, APT producing artistic director.

“We have two deeply talented artists working on an immensely appealing story that is profoundly relevant to the season,” Frank says. “Add a magnificent cast and lovely music and I believe we have little to worry about.”

APT was searching for a holiday show to better utilize Touchstone when Brenda DeVita, the company’s associate artistic director and the playwright’s wife, suggested the O. Henry tale. “A lot of ideas were bandied about, but it was Brenda’s idea for a simple production with a small cast and cello and viola,” James DeVita says. “She also picked Josh and I, knowing that ‘Magi’ is the kind of story that would speak to me.”

The play tells the day-before-Christmas tale of Jim and Della Young (Marcus Truschinski and Tracy Michelle Arnold, married in real life), a poor New York City couple at the turn of the 19th century. In the DeVita-Schmidt expanded version, author O. Henry (Brian Mani) appears as narrator and the two musicians double in minor roles that help flesh out the narrative.

“Part of the challenge was expanding the material, but there were many areas that still supported the story’s original through-line,” DeVita says. Events mentioned only in one line of the story grew into full scenes, while the social and economic context of the time, the character Jim’s life outside of the home and other aspects were further developed to flesh out the narrative.

Intimate, Emotional Music and Lyrics

Despite the fact that the music is limited to two performers, Schmidt wrote 17 distinct numbers for the show, making it very much a “book” musical in the traditional sense.

“The show takes place during a time ripe with a diverse blend of musical styles,” says Schmidt, who collaborated with DeVita on A Midnight Cry, a 2004 play staged at Milwaukee’s First Stage Children’s Theater. “The spirit of the show also has a profound resonance to our time, making each musical moment an opportunity to explore the music of the period and its contemporary resonance.

“And remember that viola and cello are the sum total of our orchestra, so the music is very intimate and very delicate, adding a wholly integrated dimension to the sound of the show,” he adds.

DeVita and Schmidt also collaborated on the lyrics, which started as outgrowths of emotional high points in the story, the author says. “During my first pass through the story, particular lines or emotional events would linger with me,” DeVita says. “Nearly all of these are what eventually developed into songs.”

The resulting music has an integrated rather than an intrusive quality, adding to the intimacy of the production as well as its emotional reach, according to Schmidt. “The genius of the O. Henry narrative is it appears simple, but there are many, many layers of richness, texture and symbolism feathered in,” Schmidt says. “The love between Della and Jim remains the show’s primary engine and the social and historical context surrounding their story offers ample ground to explore the characters’ emotional journey. That’s where the music lies.”

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