Gemma Ware went to the Chequerboard Theatre’s premiere of ‘The Gift of the Magi’

Christmas came round again four months late to the Jack Lyons Concert Hall this year with the performance of ‘The Gift of the Magi’ at the beginning of the summer term. Following on from the fervour surrounding Aga Serugo Lugo’s musical ‘Celebrity’ in March, another York student has again showcased the considerable talent that is fostered under the roof of the music department. For Tarek Merchant, the omnipresent director, composer and pianist of ‘The Gift of the Magi’, the performance was not only a chance to premiere his own work, but the first production of the newly formed, student-run Chequerboard Theatre Company.

This simple and charming tale was originally written by the prolific American short story writer O Henry. Set in a New York apartment on a Christmas Eve at the turn of the century, the story tells of the misfortunes of a poor couple, James and Della Dillingham-Young, played in this musical adaptation by Alexander Hargreaves and Quintella Hughes. Waiting in apprehension for her husband to come home for Christmas with the knowledge that she has no gift for him, Della decides to sell her most prized possession – her hair. Venturing into an insalubrious shop owned by Madame Sofronie, a Fagin-like and flamboyantly greedy gypsy played by Faith Turner, Della sells her red locks for a pitiful sum. Returning home laden with a platinum watch chain to present as a gift to her husband, she is stricken with the rashness of her decision and terrified at the prospect of his reaction to her new appearance. When James does finally come back to the apartment, the irony of the situation becomes twofold as he reveals that not only has he bought Della two beautiful combs to adorn her lost tresses, but that in order to pay for them, he sold the very watch for which she had bought him a chain.

Tareq’s adaptation of this short story was lovingly and masterfully orchestrated. He describes the production as a ‘one-act musical’ and although with its lack of definite songs and chorus line it was more like a small operetta, the jovial tone of the music was in the tradition of musical composers such as Gilbert and Sullivan. The performance itself was thoroughly professional and both the cast and eight-piece band showed remarkable competency. The musical score was complex, and even though it consisted of a body of reoccurring themes, each adequately fitted its situation. The vocal performances by the cast were all outstanding, however the contribution of Tom Appleton as the narrator O Henry brought the comedy to what would have been a sombre story. Speaking with flare throughout, Appleton’s role was carefully orchestrated into the musical score and showed Tareq’s dedication to the perfection of every second of the production. Writing a musical is an ambitious task, and perhaps Tareq’s choice of story was questionable as at times, even though it was only an hour, the plot did seem too thin and drawn out for the music which accompanied it; however Tareq’s attention to detail and his compositional skills were remarkable.

As the opening production of the Chequerboard Theatre company, ‘The Gift of the Magi’ hopefully begins an exciting new phase of similar performances on campus. Tareq started this new theatre company with the mandate to ‘focus on staging new musical theatre works by young composers,’ and he told nouse that he hoped to use his own work as a ‘springboard for future productions’. Chequerboard is open to all students and during the ‘The Gift of the Magi’ it liaised with Drama Soc to find its cast and to help with funding. Chequerboard supports the charity Jessie’s Fund which helps children with learning disabilities, speech impediments and autism through musical therapy, and the proceeds from this production went to funding the charity’s hospices around the country.

The presence of new musical theatre on campus is a tribute to the energy that York students have to create and ‘The Gift of the Magi’ was a comprehensive and impressive display of this enthusiasm. It would be a shame for the Chequerboard Theatre Company to be a one-hit-wonder, and so for all those who feel inspired, the opportunity to get your work on stage at York is now a tangible reality.

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