“It’s a Wonderful Life: Live From the WVL Radio Theatre” Brings Christmas to Capital Repertory Theatre
Christmas has arrived at the REP on North Pearl Street with the opening of “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live From the WVL Radio Theatre,” a play adapted by W.V.R. Repoley.
It is the classic story from the 1946 film that we all know and love about George Bailey and his frustrated dreams to do something big with his life, but coming around to see his worth and value in the positive ways he has impacted everyone in his small town of Bedford Falls. The play takes the entire story from the film which was adapted from the 1943 novel by Phillip Van Doren Stern and stages it with four actors and two musicians as a radio play in 1948.
We are a live studio audience attending the airing of the story. Most of the cast of this radio broadcast has been delayed by a blizzard, the station needs to air the play or go bankrupt and the sound guy, Lee Wright (Carl Howell) needs to step up and play George or everything will be lost. The framework backstory of the goings on at the radio station doesn’t add much but telling the story as a radio play sure adds a lot of interest and fun!
As Lee does a quick run through of his Foley table of sound effects and shows us a man driving along, getting out of a car, walking along, in the snow, entering a store, buying something…accompanying all the actions with their sound effects, it is a neat behind the curtains magic trick that we are being let in on which loses none of its power to delight us and indeed expands our enjoyment exponentially because we are watching it being done in front of us. This happens throughout the night and is handled nimbly by the cast which also includes Elizabeth Nestlerode, Wynn Harmon and Laurie Wells. They all play multiple roles, handle the Foley effects, sing and play instruments as well. The group scenes like the dance at the gym, the run on the bank, the stop at Martini’s and the climax with George welcomed home to 320 Sycamore Street are terrific with the actors providing rhubarb and quick changes creating a crowd instantly from their small number right in front of you.
All four actors have terrific moments and no portrayal grates for even a moment which is quite an achievement considering there are dozens. Some of the portrayals recall the film’s characters, Harmon’s Potter has more than a hint of Barrymore’s lockjaw and sneer and other characterizations don’t recall the film at all. The only Jimmy Stewart you will recognize in Howell’s playing of George is his full-hearted sincerity and a lump in the throat bravery in his moral arias. Nestlerode is a stunner as Mary and her sparking on-air and off with Howell adds real romantic chemistry to this oft told tale. Laurie Wells shows up late for the broadcast and being a good time girl makes up for lost time throwing herself into the town’s loose woman Violet, the adorable toddler Zuzu and the taxi driver Ernie among others. Wynn Harmon also has fun with a gender switch playing Mother Hatch. Harmon is a corker all night long hitting a great scene early playing both George’s father and Potter in a scene with himself and dancing out of it as if it were child’s play. He has the lion’s share of familiar faces-Potter, Clarence, Uncle Billy, Burt the cop…and handles them with a ballerina’s grace, ease and precision. Giddily good!
The whole cast moves through the recording studio constantly, handing off props and rushing to doors to be slammed or microphones to play their next bit. All of them work extremely well together and it’s a kick watching them play with each other. Music is used throughout from an opening mini overture of carols to the cast singing commercials for Pepsodent, Rice Krispies and Chiquita Banana. Associate Artist at theREP, Josh Smith plays an onstage character, Mr. Shirley, leading the audience in a sing-along of “Jingle Bells” post-intermission. He is joined on stage by Harry Lumb playing bass and the two occupy upstage left, contributing frequently to the night’s festivities and merriment.
The recording studio is beautiful (set design by David McQuillen Robertson and lighting by Rob Denton) with a sound booth, red leather tufted walls and a huge 5 tubed neon upside down L center stage. The sight as you enter the theater of the table full of objects and pieces throughout the studio like the mini doors, both car and home, whet your appetite for the ensuing audible feast. Costumes (Designed by Evan Prizant) are great, I was especially taken with Laurie Wells’ strikingly original green velvet dress. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Michael Dunn has, as usual, done a superb job with the wigs.
Director Margaret E. Hall (theREP’s Associate Artistic Director) has done a great job moving this story along and giving as much visual interest and specific action as possible. I loved watching the actors move about the set like they were set free on the playground. From the stark haunting minimalism of “An Illiad” to last year’s knockabout “Red Maple” to this, Ms. Hall has taken assured steps forward handling larger and larger challenges with an exciting craftsmanship and entertainer’s generosity which has me very eager to see what she takes on next. She has learned well from Artistic Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill and is up to theREP’s wide variety of plays. She can do anything!
The cast is great, the production is beautiful and it is presented with consummate craftsmanship and yet, and yet…I was still somewhat restless especially during Act I as we hit what seemed like every scene and every line from the movie. There was appealing ingenuity in the telling, a first-rate cast, plenty of pleasure for the eye and ear and yet still my mind wandered.
However, I am happy to report that there is still a beating heart in this timeless American fairy tale of the sanctity of life and decency rewarded. Even if you’ve seen the story many times like I, there were several moving moments that had both my partner and I misty. Attending it in a room with a couple hundred of your fellow citizens drives home the theme of interdependence making this telling necessary, especially now before it’s too late. Director Hall and her company have done a superlative job breathing life into this essential story of American values. “Remember George: No man is a failure who has friends.”