Glancing though director Suzanne Beal’s notes of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s script of The Gifts of the Magi, you’ll see entries about her memories dating back to when she was a youngster of the classic O. Henry story, which was first released in 1905.
“As a child, I put together a dramatization of this story with all my brothers and sisters, so this was something very close to my heart,” she says. “In addition to the holiday sentiment, the piece also explores issues the issues of inequality, of people struggling to make ends meet. I think those resonate with people today as well as it did in 1905.”
With a book by Mark St. Germain and music by Randy Courts, the musical version of the famed classic pulls at your heartstrings the same way the original O. Henry story does.
“We always like to do something that is family oriented or Christmas-themed,” Beal says. “Traditionally, we do Christmas Carol on the main stage. One of our associate artistic directors had done this piece a number of years ago and thought it would be great for the MET. It’s a small musical of a story that is very familiar to a lot of people.”
The story follows Jim and Della, a young married couple on Christmas at the turn of the 20th Century, who deal with the challenge of buying a special present for each other. Their prospects are bleak as both are out of work and penniless. What they find, however, is the true meaning of the holiday and that sacrifice may just be the most meaningful gift of all.
Shelley Hierstetter and Eric Jones play the young couple, and Beal is thrilled with the pairing.
“Shelley and Eric have a lovely chemistry together and bring that sense of innocence to the production,” she says. “It’s about young love and hope and wanting to make a life in the city, yet at the same time, they struggle. Each has a song about struggling with where they are and the decisions they’ve made. And there’s a lovely song about how they fell in love as kids and decided to take this big adventure in the city.”
The musical actually combines O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” with his lesser-known short story, “The Cop and the Anthem,” a tale about a hobo who is trying to get arrested on Christmas Eve so he’ll have a warm place to sleep and a good meal.
“Because everyone is in such good Christmas spirit, he’s forgiven for his transgressions and he can’t get himself arrested. That’s the funny part about the whole play,” Beal says. “Those two stories form the plot of the play and it’s set in the city of New York, with a narrator character who tells these stories.”
Because this story has been performed countless times over the years, Beal knew that if she was going to put her own stamp on the MET production, she would need to come at it fresh.
“You can’t have in your head all of the different incarnations that you’ve seen, and I think for this piece, what I wanted to do was to have this kind of dialogue between a message that resonated and the period in which it takes place,” she says. “We have some vintage film of New York City at the turn of the century, and some still projections from that period of time to create this sepia feeling of this 19th century, early 20th century tale, but at same time, we focus on the issues this play raises that are very real ones.”
Beal has thoroughly enjoyed directing the show, and credits choreographer Julie Herber and musical director Alison Shafer with being a big part of the success of the final product on stage. She’s also enjoyed working with a “nice mix of ensemble members who are regulars at the MET and people new to the MET.”
“This is not another version of A Christmas Carol, and while we’re all familiar with the story of The Gift of the Magi, this musical is a fresh lovely piece,” she says which is making its area debut. “It has a message for the season of love and caring and giving to one another in spite of the cynicism of the world we live in. It’s a message of connectedness, hope and generosity.”
With a host of holiday productions to choose from in the area, Beal champions theatergoers to come to the MET for The Gifts of the Magi. It is not often performed and this time of year Frederick, Md. offers that same sense of old-time Christmas nostalgia and romance with carriage rides, streams of lights and joy and spirits throughout the city.