Sunday, November 22, 2009

Theatrical Review: “An O Henry Christmas”

Written by: O Henry as adapted with music and lyrics by Peter Ekstrom
Directed by: Anthony Frisina
Theatrical Review by: Paul Adam Smeltz

The Shawnee Playhouse* in Shawnee on the Delaware, PA is currently their presenting their production of “An O Henry Christmas” featuring the dramatization of two of his short stories entitled, “The Last Leaf” and “The Gift of the Magi.” The plays are presented as Operettas with a chorus of children presenting Christmas Carols between the scenes. They consisted of a Red cast featuring Audrey Haskell, Aarti Katara, Jessica, Ledergerber, Jadyn Lynah, and Kimberly Rauscher and a Green cast featuring Tori Debenedetto, Lorynn and Olivia Eldridge, Claudia Hernandez, and Anastasia Moreo. While imperfect, the plays proved to be a nice time out in preparation to holiday season.

O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter whose short stories are well known for capturing the zeitgeist of the early 20th century and for their twist endings which has become known as "O. Henry endings" by literary enthusiasts. “The Last Leaf” and “The Gift of the Magi” are typical to this style and have become much loved by O. Henry fans throughout the years.

“The Last Leaf” begins with a Doctor (as portrayed by Dan Lendzian) who introduces the play and serves as it’s narrator throughout. During the course of his introduction, two women named, “Sue” (as portrayed by Jenell Manzi*) and “Johnsy” (as portrayed by Sara Ferguson*) begin moving into a third floor garret located in Greenwich Village. We soon discover they’re both artists and we learn of Johnsy’s dream to paint the bay of Naples. They soon meet their elderly neighbor, who is also an artist, named, “Berhman” (as portrayed by Ray Papay). He is of German descent and likes to drink a great deal of Gin.

During the course of the story, an epidemic comes over the city and Johnsy becomes seriously ill. It’s revealed earlier she perceives the world in a slightly dark manner in which death and hell often comes to her mind. This preoccupation is heightened by her illness as she refuses to consume the broth the Doctor prescribed her and declares, when the last leaf of a vine outside her window falls, she will die. She then proceeds to wake up every morning in morbid curiosity to see if it’s time for her to depart from this world.

In the meantime, we discover Berhman is a failed artist who endeavors to bestow the success he never had upon the two women. He desperately beseeches Sue to make sure Johnsy recovers so she can pursue her vocation and admits he drinks because he could not as evident by his empty canvas. She leave him to mull over his broken dreams to tend to her friend.

The next day, Johnsy begins recovering from her illness as it’s discovered the last leaf of the vine did not fall as it was expected to. The Doctor enters to examine her and declares all she needs now is further rest and nourishment to continue to a state of full wellness. He also reveals that Behrman was found outside that morning dead and left a painting of a leaf on a vine in his room.

It is often said that the singing in musical productions are done because sometimes the emotions needed to be expressed are to profound and intense for mere dialogue to convey. However, sometimes the musical aspects of a play can obscure those contained in the original work. Although the songs are nice to hear in this production of “The Last Leaf,” one had to pay particularly close attention to the story’s assertion Behrman gave his life so Johnsy could live. This level of attention was not necessary for the readers of the short story to obtain in their endeavors to get the meaning of it but it was for this reviewer during the play.

This reviewer saw two other troubling aspects of this production as well. As mentioned earlier, the Doctor served as the narrator throughout and was seen quite often on stage. This was true even when he wasn’t serving such purpose or when he was part of the scene. His almost constant presence on stage proved to be a distraction from the action the other characters were presenting.

Another troubling area of the production was Ray Papay’s performance of Behrman during the song entitled, “I’m a failure in Art.” The song conveys Behrman’s feeling of failure as an artists while revealing the despair he feels is a reason why he drinks. There are many moments in the song where he hiccups. Although his performance through the rest of the play is more than adequate, the hiccups he transmits seem fake and only take place because that is where they’re indicated by the song to be presented. It was amusing, but very few believed he was drunk.

The second play, “The Gift of the Magi” was much more straight forward which might have been largely due to the fact it was the better know of the short stories. It’s about a man named, “Jim” (as portrayed by Dan Lendzian) and his wife named, “Della” (as portrayed by Sara Ferguson*) who are somewhat financially impoverished and live in a one room flat in NYC. Jim admires Della’s long black hair while Della admires his pocket watch. In order to give each other a gift for Christmas, Della sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch while Jim sells his watch to purchase some special combs for Della’s hair.

The actions of the characters seem frivolous and ultimately without any intellectual merit, but O Henry said it best when he noted at the end of his short story that the Magi was wise and therefore gave wise gifts. And while the gifts of “two foolish children” seem unwise, those who received the gift they have that day are the wisest in that they gave each other love. As O Henry wrote in his concluding sentence. “They are the magi.”

The Shawnee Playhouse* production of “An O Henry Christmas” featuring two short stories written by O Henry as adapted with music and lyrics by Peter Ekstrom was Directed by Anthony Frisina and Staged Managed by Byrdie Jacques* as assisted by Kevin Hillman while the Set Designer was Scot Cleveland. The Lighting Designer and Tech person was Michael Demyan* with the Sound Tech Person being Marshall Haskell* with Travis Southard* on Spotlight. The Costumer Designer was Missy Benefield* with Amy Rau serving as Musical Director and Kyle Donahue composing the Musical Arrangements. The Shawnee Playhouse* producers are Ginny and Charlie Kirkwood while group Box Office Sales of their productions are handled by Mary Horn* as assisted by Becky Haskell*. The Box office staff included Barbara Ross, Christina McManus, and Areil Hudak*. The Shawnee Playhouse publicity is handled by Amy Cramer*. Midge McClosky* serves as The Shawnee Playhouse* Executive Director.

This production of “An O Henry Christmas” continues its run at The Shawnee Playhouse* in Shawnee on the Delaware, PA until December 20th. In spite of the imperfections I’ve noticed throughout their presentations, they are somewhat worthwhile seeing as they are a very good way to begin the holiday season with a lighter heart which may be needed as the madness of this time of year becomes a bit more pervasive inspiring many to wish for the more simpler times depicted in these stories. The next Shawnee Playhouse* presentations will be their Children’s Theatre production of “A Winnie the Pooh Christmas” November 28th through December 19th, “The Nutcracker.” December 6th through 21st, and their Annual Free Community Sing In of Handel’s masterwork, “The Messiah” on Tuesday December 22nd. Those who enjoy the Passionate Art Lover level of membership in The Forwardian Arts Society are offered a $2.00 discount off the admission fee of The Shawnee Playhouse* Productions (excluding Children Theatrical Productions and those presented by non Shawnee Production Companies). Please contact The Shawnee Playhouse* at 570-421-5093 for more information and to reserve your ticket.

No Photograph was provided to The Forwardian Arts Society by The Shawnee Playhouse for this production.

(*) denotes members of The Forwardian Arts Society in good standing and are considered Our Good Friends.

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