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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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American Players Theatre's The Gift of the Magi pairs splendid music with a touching holiday story about love and sacrifice
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There is lovely chemistry between actors Marcus Truschinski and Kelsey Brennan.
Credit:Carissa Dixon

It's impossible to see a play you've seen before without making comparisons. Last night in the small Touchstone Theatre at American Players Theatre, I was eager to see how The Gift of the Magi stacked up against the debut version I saw in 2010. While a few of the show's inherent limitations remain, I found it stronger overall. In its third annual run (through Dec. 22), The Gift of the Magi is truly special for its organic melding of storytelling and music and its just-right holiday message.

The play, written and directed by APT core company actor and playwright James DeVita, derives from the classic short story of love and sacrifice by O. Henry. Josh Schmidt composed the music and co-wrote lyrics with DeVita.

In New York in 1908, we meet Jim and Della, a hardworking, much-in-love couple living in a third-floor tenement flat. A tailor, Jim's seen his salary slashed by a third. Della watches every penny and takes in washing to make ends meet. On the cusp of Christmas, each hopes to give the other a precious gift, but how?

O. Henry's spare and beautiful story is still fairly lean source material for a full-length play. (Gift runs about 90 minutes, not including intermission.) There is lovely chemistry, however, between actors Marcus Truschinski and Kelsey Brennan. While this is Truschinski's third year as Jim, Brennan has taken on the role previously played by Truschinski's real-life wife, Tracy Michelle Arnold. While I think Arnold is a remarkable actor, seeing a new face in this role gives the show a fresh energy, and Brennan has a lovely singing voice.

The other newcomer on stage is cellist Angela McJunkin, filling the spot occupied the past two years by Eric Miller. Violist and musical director Nick Ehlinger returns for his third year. The duo of Ehlinger and McJunkin is absolutely critical to the success of Gift. (They're a treat, and I would gladly watch them on their own.) They're on stage at all times, and Gift's best innovation is the way their music seamlessly supports the story.

My two favorite musical moments occur in the second act: first when the duo plays alone at the beginning of the act, with Ehlinger delicately finger-picking his viola, and then in what remains the show's most touching song, with Ehlinger taking on the role of a street musician who cheers up Jim at a low point. Ehlinger's voice is terrific, and the poignancy of this song is, for me, the show's high point -- a genuinely beautiful and memorable moment. Even though I've heard it before, I was near tears, and I can be a tough nut to crack.

APT veteran Brian Mani knits things together as O. Henry himself, narrating and guiding the activity, and occasionally slipping into other, more minor roles (butcher, tailor, etc.). Scenic designer Nathan Stuber and costume designer Holly Payne have conjured a cozy, believable world of well-worn things.

Ultimately, while this is still a slender premise for a musical, Gift conveys a tenderness and timelessness that is appealing, all the more so when underscored by Schmidt's music. The simple humanity of O. Henry's story shines through, and that's just what the season needs.

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