William Sydney Porter, better known by the pen name O. Henry, led a fascinating life. He coined the term “banana republic,” spent five years in prison and worked as a pharmacist, bank teller and journalist. Born in Greensboro, N.C., he frequently visited Asheville and is buried in Riverside Cemetery. But if the name O. Henry rings a tolling holiday bell in many people’s ears each year, it’s thanks to the most famous of his 380-plus short stories, The Gift of the Magi.
This bittersweet classic of generosity and love amid tough economic times is still plenty relevant today in a country where Black Friday sales spark pandemonium and no amount of eggnog can smother the holiday blues. And the Hendersonville Little Theater, now in its 48th season as the town’s “official community theater,” is presenting the beloved parable as The Gifts of the Magi, a musical.
Over the years, several composers have attempted to set O. Henry’s oeuvre to music. The current version, by composer Randy Courts and playwright/lyricist Mark St. Germain, combines the beloved parable with another O. Henry story. Director Kai Elijah Hamilton says it was the Asheville connection that spurred his desire to stage this challenging production. “It enlivens my spirit to know that such greats as O. Henry drew inspiration and romance from the same place that I call home,” he reveals. “Producing works by authors that relate in some way to our area is not only important but highly intriguing for the audience's theatrical experience.”
In staging the piece, however, Hamilton faced the age-old creative issue: how to maintain the primary source’s intent while giving the audience a new perspective and, beyond that, producing a high-caliber musical production.
Musical Director Chuck Taft says he was initially skeptical. The music, he notes, is extremely difficult, even for accomplished vocalists. Compounding the problem was the fact that most of the cast — including the two leads, Jade DeLapouyade and Russell Watts — had no musical training. But Taft’s skepticism quickly dissolved once he began coaching both actors. “They were quick learners and had great ears, which helped tremendously.”
Brandon Gash, who plays Soapy, calls his involvement with the production “a fun and challenging experience. The music has been very different and somewhat difficult, but with Chuck’s help, everyone in the cast has a strong grasp of it.”
That music, notes Taft, is also deceptive. “It is very accessible and melodic, so one would assume it is easy to sing. But the composer has captured the essence of O. Henry’s pathos by creating dense vocal harmonies and intricate accompaniment.” Nonetheless, he maintains, “Courts has done a magnificent job of capturing the humanity and emotion of O. Henry’s writing with this music — just by looking at the score, you can immediately visualize what the drama is onstage.”
It’s been an arduous journey for this ambitious community theater, but Hamilton feels the end result is a stellar production. “Here at HLT, we find it important not to stray away from a challenge, but embrace it,” he explains. “I think it is engaging to bring holiday plays to our audiences. The Gifts of the Magi is a perfect, heartwarming classic that is sure to please families looking to enhance their Christmas spirit!”
— Jason DeCristofaro is the artistic director of the Brio Concert Series. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: The Gifts of the Magi
where: Hendersonville Little Theater
when: Thursday, Dec. 12-Sunday, Dec. 22.
Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.
$20/$15 students/$10 youth