The Gift of the Magi What a lovely surprise this gem of a musical is. O. Henry's classic short story, written 99 years ago this month, is filled out with a second tale, "The Cop and the Anthem," to provide a 90-minute, intermissionless Christmas entertainment. There's no hard sell here, nor any of the overbearing sentiment that sometimes accompanies this parable about the meaning of sacrifice. Everything is understated. Occasionally the musical score by Randy Courts and Mark St. Germain sounds derivative of Bock and Harnick's She Loves Me, but that's not a bad model to emulate. At their best, some of these songs are genuinely haunting. The six-person cast is supercharged by Eddie Dumoulin, who as newsboy Willie Porter (O. Henry's real name) instills the production with sweetness and drive. Performed by Alton Little Theater through December 19 at the Showplace, 2450 North Henry Street, Alton, Illinois. Call 618-462-6562. (Dennis Brown)
Hearts The history books tell us that World War II ended in 1945; but for some who fought it, the war never ends. Willy Holtzman's ambitious drama is a tribute to his father Donald, who went off to war (after graduating from University City High School), survived the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, helped to liberate the concentration camp at Buchenwald, came home a hero and then spent the next half-century reliving the conflict in his tortured mind. As Donald, Christopher Limber brings enormous humanity to a character who almost never stops talking to the audience as he recounts six decades of American life. The play is overwritten and has too many false endings, but in taking on issues that no other plays have touched, Hearts builds to scenes of ferocious emotional power. Performed by the New Jewish Theater through December 19 at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. Call 314-442-3283. (DB)
Late Night Catechism Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan's play is back at the Grandel, this time starring veteran Chicago improv performer Mary Beth Burns. A combination of religious instruction, audience interaction and game-show antics, Catechism is a wildly witty and slightly scary encounter with Catholicism. The delight of the show is Burns' constant interplay with the audience. Whisperers are called to order. Latecomers are fined. Everyone must address Sister in full sentences and prizes are awarded for correct answers. With so much depending on audience responses for fuel, Catechism is clearly a different show each night, and Burns seems to revel in that. Her twinkling eyes search the audience for new material even as she works details from earlier stories into running gags. Class is in session for an open-ended run upstairs at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-1111. (DJ)
The Magic Wish A lonely elf in Santa's workshop wishes that the toys might come to life -- and sure enough, that's precisely what happens. There are skaters, bears, a wobbly ballerina who would never make it as a Rockette, even two dancing icicles. The 40-minute show is harmless family fun -- especially if you enjoy watching the children in the audience get caught up in the world of puppetry. Most shows are preceded by puppetmaking demonstrations. Performed through January 2, 2005, at Kramer Marionette Theatre, 4143 Laclede Avenue. Call 314-531-3313. (DB)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood This show-within-a-show transports the viewer back to an 1892 music hall where a company of ham actors is striving to resolve a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' final, unfinished novel. There's great bonhomie between actors and audience, who are encouraged to vote on how the story should end. The proceedings get off to a jolly start, as cast members descend upon the audience to wish us well (and do a little lobbying for their characters). It's only after the show begins that you might have a tough time trying to figure out what's going on. The production generates a lot of good will and high spirits, but not much more. Performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through December 31 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Call 314-968-4925. (DB)
Radio City Christmas Spectacular Reviewed in this issue.
The Santaland Diaries Reviewed in this issue.
Tell Me Somethin' Good The Black Rep gets a jump on its 2005 season with yet another revival of this affectionate musical revue that begins in the 1950s and fast-forwards through the decades. By evening's end, girls who begin the evening in pleated skirts (remember the ones with French poodles?) end up looking like drill sergeants. Not that this notion of a musical is interested in making a statement -- the priority here is sound, from Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops" to Barry White to Isaac Hayes, all propelled by a spirited cast of eleven and a five-man band that would be the envy of any prom-dance steering committee. Performed by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company through December 19 at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-3810. (DB)