Like most auditions, the audition for the musical, “The Gift of the Magi,” at the Players’ Ring in Portsmouth brought all manner of actors, some more talented and some less. But when producer and director Deborah Barry looked at the pool of players available to her, she realized she could put together a very special cast.
This timeless holiday story of love and giving will open Nov. 9 on the intimate Marcy Street stage with roles being played by a blind man, a transgender woman, a man with cerebral palsy and a cast of 10 who range in age from teenagers to septuagenarians.
“I didn’t go looking for people with this diversity but they are talented and wonderful people so I wanted to include them in a story about diversity,” said Barry, a longtime director and producer who with this show is debuting her production company, Debb’s Productions. “I was looking for people with acting ability and also at people’s humanity, and everyone in this cast has a wonderful humanity.”
In many ways the diversity of this cast, though not of race, religion or country of origin, exemplifies the theme of community and immigration that Barry wanted for her take on this 1900s tale based on the story by O. Henry.
“This all works because this musical is about the melting pot of America and that is really what our cast is,” said Tim Young of Rollinsford, who acted in Hollywood for years before a stroke left him blind 13 years ago.
The Gift of the Magi was adapted into a musical by local playwright David J. Mauriello, with music and lyrics by Robert Johnson. It is the story of a penniless husband and wife who each sacrifice their greatest possession in order to afford a Christmas gift for the other.
“The show takes place in 1905 New York City at a time of high immigration,” Barry said. “I’m not changing the story line, but many of the characters are being portrayed as immigrants or second generation American. It’s a timely topic and although the cast is diverse not by race or ethnicity, it’s diverse in a different way.”
As Young noted, the people in the cast represent community and America as much as anyone does.
“Deb said I’m going to give a chance to these people who don’t fit the mold of what normal looks like, but what is America? It’s everybody. Normal is what Ariel is, what I am, what James is,” Young said, referring to James Ouellette, who has cerebral palsy and plays a kind jeweler and Ariel Moore, a transgender woman who plays several parts, including Claudia, the wigmaker’s assistant. Young was cast as a well-to-do shopper.
In fact, Barry’s casting of Moore gave the young performer her first chance to play the part of a woman on stage.
“This is a great opportunity for me personally,” said Moore, a 2015 theater graduate of the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. “I usually let the director decide which part I am most suited for.”
The diversity of actors is not a focus of conversation or rehearsals, but every member of the cast is aware of the unique team Barry brought together. Working with different abilities means choreographing a bit differently, or having cast members helping each other out.
“We have to be accommodating, but it’s not a problem,” Barry said. “We are having a lot of laughs, with a lot of great people. Everyone is appreciating everyone’s abilities more so than their disabilities.”
“People are patient with me,” said Young, who said he is thrilled to be in a musical for the first time in decades. “If I need a correction, they help me. And it’s a learning experience for everyone.”
The casting adds to the message of giving, a message that is central to the show.
“This is a show of immigrants and that’s what we as a country have become,” said Moore. “It is a really unique aspect of the show with diverse hopes and dreams.”
“It is a classic story about sacrificing the things you love most for the people you love most,” noted Barry. “So it’s very much about community and about supporting and taking care of one another and that is exactly what this cast and crew is doing.”
“The Gift of the Magi” will be performed Nov. 9 to 25 at the Players’ Ring Theatre at 105 Marcy St. in Portsmouth with showtimes 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays with a matinee 3 pm Saturday Nov. 24, shows 3 and 7 pm on Sundays, Nov. 11 and 18, and 3 pm Sunday, Nov. 25. Tickets are $18 with discounts for students, seniors and Players’ Ring members. Reservations can be made at playersring.org or 603-436-8123.
To see more local theater events, click here.