How far will people go to demonstrate their love? Jim and Della, an impoverished young married couple trying to survive in turn-of-the-century New York City, discover the lengths to which each is willing to sacrifice for their devotion. O. Henry’s cherished short story, melded with another of his favorite tales, comes to life and is transformed into an 80-minute musical by Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts. Porchlight’s production marks Chicago’s premiere of a holiday treasure that’s a bit tarnished.
Mark E. Lococo, assisted by choreographer Brenda Didier, with exquisite musical direction and accompaniment by Elizabeth Doran, brings the show to life. Talented Chicago newcomers Chelsea Morgan and Jason Richards, filled with passion and earnestness, breathe honesty and vigor into the young couple, making their love and frustrations feel genuine. Nate Lewellyn plays Willy Porter (O. Henry’s legal name), an omniscient observer/narrator, who takes audiences on a journey through the author’s colorful exposition. These three characters would be enough, especially given their artistic portrayal. But the playwright has added street vagrant Soapy Smith (from “The Cop and the Anthem”) who aspires to be arrested in order to spend the coming winter months in a warm jail with three meals a day. Kevin McKillip plays this dryly comic character with panache providing a welcome respite from the play’s melodrama. Heather Townsend and Gerald Richardson, collectively called The City, enthusiastically play prospective employers, policemen and other supporting players.
Beautifully costumed by Bill Morey and played against William Boles’ simple, elegant set, this show could be a gem. But the songs sound alike, the dialogue seems repetitive and, despite McKillip’s welcome comic relief, the two stories don’t really mesh except as lessons in irony. A more polished, welcome gift would stay truer to the original story and its message of love.