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Bernardine Mitchell captivates in "The Gift of the Magi." (Photo by Josh Lamkin)

Review: Bernardine Mitchell is the Theatrical Outfit’s best present in “The Gifts of the Magi”

Bernardine Mitchell captivates in "The Gift of the Magi." (Photo by Josh Lamkin)
Bernardine Mitchell captivates in The Gifts of the Magi. (Photo by Josh Lamkin)

Around this time of year, most theaters in town fall back on traditional holiday favorites. The Alliance Theatre has its long-running A Christmas Carol, of course; Horizon Theatre has its sardonic The Santaland Diaries; and Aurora Theatre’s Christmas Canteen has had durable legs. Now in its third season at Theatrical Outfit is The Gifts of the Magi, a musical version of the beloved O. Henry short story. It can be a little clunky at times, but at heart it’s a good-natured and musically satisfying production. 

Running through December 21 at the Balzer Theatre at Herren’s, The Gifts of the Magi is anchored by the indomitable Bernardine Mitchell. She stars as news vendor Willie, who is on the New York street dispensing advice and frequent song. She narrates the familiar, ironic story of Jim Dillingham (Nick Arapoglou) and his wife Della (Caroline Freedlund), a newly married Big Apple couple who are young and poor and on the lookout for Christmas presents for each other. As Della discovers, though, $1.87 doesn’t buy much. It looks like the two won’t be able to exchange gifts — unless, that is, they are willing to make some sacrifices. 

The musical version of the story has been adapted by Mark St. Germain, a favorite of the troupe. (His plays The Best of Enemies, The God Committee and Freud’s Last Session have been produced by Theatrical Outfit in previous years.) St. Germain has also come up with the score, along with Randy Courts. First performed in the 1980s, this work combines with another O. Henry fable, The Cop and the Anthem, in which a bum on the street, Soapy Smith (here played by Glenn Rainey) looks to get arrested and at least have a warm place to stay and a meal during the cold season. The two other characters in the production are The City Him (Jeff McKerley) and The City Her (Kayce Grogan-Wallace), who play multiple roles. 

It’s a low-key, spare show, with Tommy Cox’s set consisting of a New York backdrop, decorated street lights and not much else onstage. Music director S. Renee Clark sits to the side and provides the onstage band — that is, her sublime piano playing. 

As directed by Heidi Cline McKerley, who is very adept behind the scenes, especially with musicals, The Gifts of the Magi is mostly successful. What works the best is Mitchell. She is a powerhouse entertainer, and whenever the show is dragging, she comes along and powers it back up with her expressive pipes, especially in her showstopper “Pockets.” Like Mitchell, Rainey is a veteran of this kind of material, with a range and ease that makes his scenes work. 

The City Him and City Her characters are intermittently amusing, although McKerley and Grogan-Wallace can overdo the shtick at times. Ironically, it’s the central pair who prove to be the least interesting aspect of the production. Freedlund has a vulnerable nature that suits the character well, but the songs the couple have don’t register. And although he has a fine voice, Arapoglou looks disinterested at times. 

It’s a simple story that — even with the addition of the Soapy Smith character — feels stretched at just over an hour and a half. The music is hit or miss — some of it works (such as a standout number called “Greed”) while other songs feel padded. The same goes for Jeff McKerley’s choreography, which can be sharp and fluid or nondescript. 

The Gifts of the Magi is not dazzling Christmas fare, or the kind of bravura work Tom Key and Theatrical Outfit can produce, but it’s sweet and has its share of nice musical moments, especially for those who’ve overdosed on the traditional season fare. Let’s be honest — any opportunity to watch Mitchell is welcome.