Review of It’s a Wonderful Life, Music Theatre of Connecticut
It’s a Wonderful Life, the story of American Everyman George Bailey, has become, in the 70 years since its release, a holiday favorite, a Christmas classic. It wasn’t always so, but that hardly matters now. The tale of how a struggling Building and Loan manager in Bedford Falls manages to best Old Man Potter, the grasping Scrooge of the community, and survive a Christmas Eve’s dark night of the soul worthy of Dickens’ infamous hero, feels like the stuff of American folklore. It weaves its spell even without the fine cast of character actors, beginning with James Stewart and including Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, and Henry Travers, that grace Frank Capra’s film of 1946. As a kind of welcome back to small-town America for all those returning G.I.s, the script has its heart in the right place.
Transformed by Joe Landry into a “live radio play” set in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life at MTC, directed by Kevin Connors, adds the charm of old-time entertainment to the well-known script. The melodramatic aspects of the story are gently winked at by such devices as using commercial breaks and voice-over announcers. We enter not only the bygone era of the story itself but also the way in which such a story would have been framed for its listeners in the golden age of radio. And since the audience is present for the dramatization—though you might be forgiven if you close your eyes and let images from the film play through your head in response to the lively voices of the cast—we get to watch the performance of sound effects and the delightful business of how five actors at microphone stands become the inhabitants of a small town with over a dozen named roles.
The pleasures of the enactment come from how the familiar types of the original become comic turns in the hands of five radio actors, Freddie Filmore (Allan Zeller), Jake Laurents (Jon-Michael Miller), Sally Applewhite (Elizabeth Donnelly), Lana Sherwood (Elisa DeMaria), Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Jim Schilling). Each has a certain kind of showbiz attitude that plays into the parts they bring to life “on the air” (the audience at the show gets to double as the studio audience, with an Applause sign that lights up to let us know when we should be heard).
Begin with earnest George (Jon-Michael Miller), a well-meaning type whose life we trace from moments of past presence of mind to present despair to bewilderment and eventual redemption. Miller’s Laurents plays George as a bit of a would-be matinee idol, not quite what Jimmy Stewart aimed for. He’s abetted by DeMaria’s Lana Sherwood who also aims to get as much sex appeal into her portrayal of the somewhat wayward Violet Bick as she can. As George’s ever loyal wife Mary, Sally Applewhite looks a bit more elegant than she would on film, and Donnelly gets some mileage out of the remove between a Manhattan radio celebrity and the can-do smalltown girl. As grasping Potter, Zeller’s Freddie Filmore brings to bear the kind of overbearing style he uses to lord it over the airwaves as one of those inescapable announcer voices. And Jim Schilling’s “Jazzbo” Heywood, complete with bowtie, is the kind of easy-going, laidback entertainer just perfect for the gently ditzy angel Clarence and for the gee-whiz voices of little kids.
Landry’s adapted script plays it close to the original, with a host of other familiar voices—the druggist Gower, Bert the cop, Ernie the cabbie, Uncle Billy, Mrs. Bailey, Mr. Martini—to let the actors show off their range of voices and, sometimes, a single actor enacts a conversation between two roles. The folks at home with their ears attending the box would never know. What we see that they don’t is part of the fun of this form of presentation.
The original film runs for over two hours. Landry’s script makes some judicious cuts, so as not to bog down the set-up that gets us to George’s time of trial, and the show also doesn’t have to draw out scenes for the sake of “screen time,” and that makes for a swifter if less expansive telling.
It’s a Wonderful Life, in any format, does its moral of the importance of friends and community proud. Maybe a more telling moral now than for many a year.
It’s a Wonderful Life
A Live Radio Play
Adapted for the stage by Joe Landry
Based on the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling
Directed by Kevin Connors
Music: Kevin Connors; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Stage Manager: PJ Letersky
Cast: Elisa DeMaria, Elizabeth Donnelly, Jon-Michael Miller; Jim Schilling; Allan Zeller
Music Theatre of Connecticut Mainstage
December 9-18, 2016