An O. Henry Christmas takes you on a sentimental journey

Amid the cascade of Christmas Carol remounts, Hallmark family shows and limp holiday parodies, Peter Ekstrom's An O. Henry Christmas, now being staged by Miners Alley, is a refreshing seasonal choice.

We all remember "The Gift of the Magi": A young couple, dirt poor and madly in love, have no money to buy each other Christmas presents. So she cuts off and sells the long, lustrous hair he loves, while he pawns his prized gold watch. And then...oops!...well, you know the rest. This is the shorter and more cheerful of the two musical pieces that make up An O. Henry Christmas. It has some very funny songs, including a tickle-giggle number reminiscent of "Adele's Laughing Song," from Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus and a mock-operatic duet that begins with the husband's horrified exclamation "Your hair is gone." That phrase repeats again and again, and had us singing variations all the way home: "Your mind is gone," "Our money's gone." There are also a couple of real clunkers, however, including a mournful ode sung by the husband to his watch, and some of the dialogue is dumb: "I really do love my hair." The couple's sunny, unflinching love is unconvincing. Wait until you're both middle-aged and he's still working for peanuts, I found myself thinking sourly. But then, O. Henry was a Victorian writer, and what's Christmas without Victorian sentimentality?

"The Last Leaf" is a more shadowed story. A pair of young women artists room together in a loft in New York's Greenwich Village; their story is told by their female doctor (a warmly empathetic Cat Smith). One of the women, Johnsey, dreams of setting up her easel in Italy; Sue is more down-to-earth. Their neighbor is a comic drunken German by the name of Behrman, himself a failed artist. When Johnsey develops pneumonia, Sue tends to her devotedly. Johnsey is convinced she will die when the last leaf on the vine outside their window drifts to earth. A miracle is needed, and you can probably figure out who provides it. There are some very pretty songs in this playlet, but others fall short, and at times the action is so prolonged that you might find yourself willing that damn leaf to fall.

Still, I liked the immediacy and unpretentiousness of the entire production. Its technical values are simple, with the accompaniment provided by a lone pianist, Pamela Weng. As the wife in "The Gift of the Magi," Aimee Carlisle has the evening's sweetest voice; unfortunately, she acts the way many classically trained singers act, with lots of posing, indicating and fake smiling. But Tyler D. Collins makes for a comically befuddled husband. In "The Last Leaf," Jade A. Tiller and Kellie Rae Rockey are both a little grown-up for the young-girl roles of Johnsey and Sue. Tiller has an impressive voice, however, and Rockey brings enough emotional reality to Sue that I actually teared up a little at the end. Wade Livingston has an admirable on-stage energy, but he overplays Behrman hugely, utilizing a patently fake German accent and sometimes yelling at the top of his voice — quite unnecessary in this intimate little theater, and a vice that some of his fellow performers aren't immune to, either. Robert Kramer's direction tends to the overly dramatic, as if he were working with a big-scale musical comedy instead of a piece requiring delicacy and absolute precision to communicate its gentle seasonal message of generosity and love.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman