You can’t tell Christmas from the Fourth of July without snow! And the snowflakes are falling on the Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s Main Stage with their musical and magical production of The Gifts of the Magi. Directed by Suzanne Beal with Musical Direction by Alison E. Shafer, this charming production is a perfect reminder of what the true spirit of Christmas is meant to feel like for the holiday season. Set just after the turn of the 20th century in a city that never sleeps, there is a high volume of suspiciously civilized behavior on the streets of New York City. Surely it must be the extremely contagious virus of Christmas spirit, infected among the citizens be they rich or poor, and showcased to perfection in this precious little production.
Scenically, the show is simplistic and yet pleasing to the eye. The urban streets of a city lost to time are crafted with a sense of grace by Set Designer Allison Duvall. Brick wall patterning across the main backdrop has a cleverly carved projection screen outlining the silhouette of a New York City skyline framing it for the live-footage projections designed by Ken Poisson. Duvall works with Poisson to capture the essence of the bustling city life with blend of frozen images and moving grainy sepia-toned footage, creating a vibrant holiday atmosphere on the stage. Duvall’s attention to detail with all of the dated Christmas magazine covers at the newsstand is the perfect touch to round out the show’s aesthetic.
Costume Designer Robin Shaner adapts the couture to the atmosphere of the show with ease. Mid-waist traveling cloaks that harken to the days of buskers and carols busy on the street are the perfect accessory for “City”— a character divided between two actresses and meant to represent the entirety of the populous of New York’s busy streets. Shaner puts a tattered patchwork touch onto Soapy Smith’s clothes to give him the authenticity of a vagrant bum ready to loiter and scurry about the streets. Classically fitted and just slightly post-industrial revolution, the clothing style is well-suited to the era compliments of Shaner’s efforts.
Despite some pitch and intonation issues during some of the higher brackets of the show’s songs, Musical Director Alison E. Shafer guides the six-person ensemble through the fascinating numbers composed by Randy Courts, with lyrics by Courts and Mark St. Germain. It’s Choreographer Julie Herber who puts the magic of a stage musical into the show with her subtle yet greatly appreciated dance routines. Though they are few and far between, the dance routines that Herber fabricates echo the styles of Vaudeville and early Broadway. Featured during numbers like “Bum Luck” and “Greed” the fancy footwork that Herber imbues to the show is the tinsel on the tree, a bit of extra sparkle that is absolutely necessary.
Director Suzanne Beal unearths the time-preserved story in this stage adaptation by Mark St. Germain. Ensuring that performances are delivered in earnest and with honest flavors of this highly iconic tale, Beal executes a touching rendition of The Gifts of the Magi upon the Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s main stage. Poignant and stirring with heartfelt evocations, Beal and the ensemble can hang their holiday hats on this show.
Fully embodying the voices of ‘the city’, Laura K. Stark and Jeanine Evans split the major ensemble role between them with vigorous gusto. Appropriately tuned to the various caricature types they portray, Stark and Evans deliver healthy bouts of humorous moments throughout their interactions with both Soapy Smith (Ray Hatch) and the street newsboy Willy Porter (Daniel Valentin-Morales.) The pair are most notable for their highly amusing, albeit darkly radiant, rendition of “Greed.” This number captures the truly dark and commercial essence that rots the spirit of Christmas from the inside out, letting Stark and Evans articulately slink their way through Herber’s choreography drenched in the poison of the song’s title.
Hatch, as the tatty street urchin, makes a good comic shtick routine out of his attempts to become arrested in order to spend Christmas on ‘the island’ where he can have square meals, a roof and bed, and privacy. His fast-footed work during “Bum Luck”, a nifty duet that’s performed along with Jim Dillingham (Eric Jones) is a good representation of his energetic spirit that surfaces consistently throughout the production.
Jones, paired opposite the winsome Shelley Hierstetter as Mrs. Dillingham, has a firm grasp on the cadence of a working class man in 1905 New York City. Where he lives in perpetual pessimism, Hierstetter overflows with optimism. These wellsprings of polar opposites balance each other’s’ characters out to perfection. Both Jones and Hierstetter have strong vocal sounds when singing, and her indefatigable hope inspires his voice to mirror such an attitude during their duet “Tell Me You Love Me Once More.” Their voices radiate together in “The Ballad of Jim and Della” as well, making strong compliments of each other’s ranges. Jones’ solo, “What Would a Dream be Worth?” is harrowing and somewhat haunting, perfectly echoing his grounded mire of hopelessness. Hierstetter’s solo “My Jim,” belays the versatility which she brings to the role, capturing the character’s nerves and undefeatable faith in this number.
Delivering pitch perfect tones throughout the performance with great consistency, Daniel Valentin-Morales takes to the role of Willy Porter with youthful exuberance and eager and earnest spirited soul. The narrator who introduces the title number and sings gallantly throughout the show, Valentin-Morales has an exceptionally gifted voice which resonates clearly with sturdy sustains every time his solo numbers draw to a close. The emotions which he imbues into these numbers are passionately evocative and strike chords deep within the heart and soul of those listening. His quiet and touching rendition of “Midnight” draws forth a deep forlorn sound that draws tears to the eye.
A blissful holiday alternative when one has seen so many Christmas Carols that one has lost count, The Gifts of the Magi will inspire the mind to the true spirit and meaning of Christmas this holiday season.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes with no intermission
The Gifts of the Magi play through January 3, 2016 on the Main Stage of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in the Historic FSK Hotel building— 31 W. Patrick street in downtown historic Frederick, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 694-4744 or purchase them online.