Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Musical ‘The Gift of the Magi’ renews a spirit in Green Bay

Critic At Large

Play-by-Play Theatre

Ben Olejniczak, from left, Lyle Becker and Kaara McHugh join in song in the Play-by-Play Theatre presentation of “The Gift of the Magi.” (Ferron Photography)


Experience “The Gift of the Magi” once, and you experience it forever as a spirit all its own.

The love story is indelible, whether read or seen on a screen or, now, presented as musical theater.

The American love story’s original form is a short story by O. Henry, whose skills were such that his name equates with the phrase “surprise ending.”

A production of “The Gift of the Magi” being presented this weekend in Green Bay Community Theater’s playhouse by Play-by-Play Theatre of greater Green Bay brings new illuminations.

Authors James DiVita and Josh Schmidt flesh out the life around young married couple Jim and Della.

Still at the core is their fresh love – adoring, firm, absorbing, invincible and shining. Their love is rich only in its depth.

New is a look around Jim and Della through music and tale-telling, starting with songs of Christmastime. The year is 1908, and the place is the poorly heated third-floor New York City apartment that, renting at $8 a week, is overpriced. Times are hard, and everyone is struggling. Every nickel counts.

Narrating is O. Henry himself. What’s more, he becomes other characters who Jim and Della meet.

As a writer, O. Henry tells what’s happening in the news and how many folks have to make due working 60-hour weeks at 22 cents an hour.

As a character, he becomes a grocer, the owner of a clothing business no longer making new suits but repairing worn ones, a woman hairdresser, a mover and shaker now down on his luck and others. In some of his forms, he meets Jim or Della, and their interaction tells how adept Jim and Della are at bartering.

Add to this are interesting layers of the Play-by-Play Theatre production that is guided by the adept and caring hand of Mary Ehlinger in direction and music direction and performance on stage.

Portraying Jim and Della are Ben Olejniczak and Kaara McHugh – recently married and recent graduates of a conservatory. They know about fresh love and performing. It’s a kind of perfect match, with their trained voices part of the luster.

Husband-and-wife Ben Olejniczak and Kaara McHugh portray the married couple in “The Gift of the Magi.” (Ferron Photography)

Portraying O. Henry, et al., is Lyle Becker, who has acted and sung in dozens of roles on local stages. This time, he calls on a multitude of personas and accented voices – his warm tenor adding other brush strokes – in a single production. In a sense, what James DiVita and Josh Schmidt have done is a surprise – not only employ the wordsmith O. Henry but make O. Henry perform. On stage, it takes certain qualities to pull that off, and Lyle Becker has ’em.

Music stems from the soulfulness of the cello provided by Wendy Scattergood and, through keyboard synthesizing, violin provided by Mary Ehlinger. Mary Ehlinger additionally appears on stage as a street musician for the heart-tugging spiritual/gospel song “But for the Grace of God Go I,” joined by Ben Olejniczak and Lyle Becker.

This version of “The Gift of the Magi” is a chamber musical – small, personal, embracing. It is another way to enjoy a couple so much in love.


Creative: From the short story of 1905 by O. Henry; book – James DiVita; music – Josh Schmidt; lyrics – James DeVita, Josh Schmidt; director/music director – Mary Ehlinger; scenic designer – Warren Elliott; lighting designer – Kaitlin Honkanen; production stage manager – Carolyn Silverberg


O. Henry, multiple characters – Lyle Becker

Della – Kaara McHugh

Jim – Ben Olejniczak

Musicians – Wendy Scattergood, Mary Ellinger (and Busker)

Running time: 70 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 8


Musical numbers

“First String of Carols” (“We Three Kings,” etc.) – Company

“Christmas Melodies” – Company

“We Will Always Be” – Jim, Della

“Lucky Man” – Company

“The Morning Paper” – O. Henry

“Christmas Tradition” – Jim, Della

“Three Flights Down” – Jim, Della

“Something” – Jim, Della

“Three Flights Down” (Reprise) – Company

“My ‘All the World’” – Jim

“Moxie” – Company

“$1.87” – Della

“Moxie” (Reprise) – O. Henry, Jim

“All You Have” – Company

“Second String of Carols” – O. Henry

“Kings and Queens” – Company

“Madame Sofronie” – Della, O. Henry

“Who’d o’Thought” – O. Henry

“Something” (Reprise) – Della

“But for the Grace of God Go I” – Busker, Jim, O.Henry

“Della’s Prayer” – Della

“The Gift of the Magi” – Company


THE VENUE: Green Bay Community Theater is one of the few community theaters that owns its performance space – and rehearsal space under the same roof. Stability is a big benefit. A landmark on Green Bay’s west side, the 193-seat Robert Lee Brault Playhouse features elements of an earlier time as a church, built in 1854 (the current backstage dressing room), 1895 (auditorium) and 1911 (today’s Community Room). The most obvious remnants are the church’s peaked side-wall windows with stained glass that is covered. High-up triangular windows still contain stained glass, and their patterns can be seen playing on sunny days when the troupe has matinees. The auditorium includes a 30 by 23-foot open-end stage with no stage curtain. The troupe has remodeled some portions of the building with medieval touches, but the seating area retains elements of a church. The theater includes wooden arches with decorative geometric designs on the ends and exposed beams in the sharply angled ceiling. The stage front consists of woodwork of repeated arches that looks to be repurposed wainscoting from other parts of the building. The troupe owns the building, which became its home in 1966. The Community Room serves as a gathering space for audiences prior to a performance and at intermission and for board and other internal meetings.

THE PERSON: Larger-than-life personality Robert Lee Brault was a longtime Green Bay Community Theater actor, director, scenic designer and managing director. He and his wife, Rita Brault, were mainstays from the time the troupe performed at various locations through the purchase of the present playhouse. Bob Brault died Nov. 1, 2015, in Florida at age 88. The troupe has established a special programming and education fund in his name.

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