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REVIEW: A Wonderful Life - Rose Center Theater

"... a story with much more to it than feel-good sentimentality."

The Rose Center Theater, now in its eighth season of award winning musicals, is proud to present “A Wonderful Life,” playing December 1st through the 23rd with performances at 7:30pm and Sunday matinee performances at 2pm.

Based on the 1946 film, “A Wonderful Life” follows the angel Clarence as he watches over the life of George Bailey. George has big dreams but circumstances and his good heart gets in the way. As the suicidal man who is shown the value of his life by his guardian angel, George Bailey is full of self-doubt that gnaws away at his essential decency. Clarence (Cliff Senior) shows a floundering George what the world would be like without him that provides just the shock he needs to set him straight.

This masterpiece from Frank Capra still has a lot to say about community spirit and is a story with much more to it than feel-good sentimentality. Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo are the two musical legends who joined up in the 1980s to create a stage-musical version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” originally made for Liberty Films. Harnick was the lyricist for “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Raposo was the songwriter behind the “Sesame Street” theme song, among many other memorable tunes. (In fact, a couple of the characters in this show are also named Bert and Ernie). Harnick is credited with the book and lyrics, Raposo with the music.

The Rose Center Theater’s staging of this wonderful production, directed by and starring Tim Nelson, is a solid one. The story’s themes remain powerful, as they deal with the importance of community and of sacrificing for the greater good, and of every person having an impact on more people than they could ever realize.

As George Bailey grows up in his small hometown, his countless small deeds mattered very much in the lives of the Bedford Falls townspeople. And when George prepares to leave town and go to college to fulfill his own dream of building skyscrapers, his father, the president of the small Bailey Building and Loan Company, suddenly dies, leaving George to postpone his dreams and attempt to manage the family company. He finds happiness in his marriage to Mary Hatch. When Uncle Billy accidentally misplaces company funds, George faces financial ruin and almost certain imprisonment. Seeing no way out, he runs to the bridge over the river, prepared to plunge himself to his death.

Enter Clarence, George's lovable, bumbling guardian angel, who has come to Bedford Falls to prove to George that his life is worth living and to earn wings for himself. He grants George one wish: to see what the world would be like if he had never been born. Suddenly Bedford Falls is a very unpleasant place. The bustling small town main street is now lined with pool halls and saloons. None of his friends or family recognize him, not even his beloved wife, Mary, who, in this world without him, is a prim spinster librarian. Pursued by police, George returns to the bridge and begs to have his life back. Clarence grants it and George runs home to find his children, his wife, and a town that rallies to support him. Finally, George comes to realize - it truly is a wonderful life, after all.

The songs added immeasurably to the storyline and were electric joys that deepened our understanding of the characters. Director Nelson steps fluidly into Jimmy Stewart’s best-known role as George Bailey, as he navigates through that tough task with all the earnestness and compassion of the film’s predecessor, traveling the course of the story, from happy-go-lucky to utter despair, to deep gratitude. He echoes just enough of the film star, with the occasional pauses and gentle geniality, to pay tribute, while at the same time interjecting his own personality into the part.

He shares an easy chemistry with Alexis Karol, who plays Mary, his wife – sweet, feminine, and maternal. Ms. Karol (a veteran stage actor and presently director and head of the Laguna Beach High School drama department), infuses Mary with a quiet intelligence without losing any vivacity in the process. Just as important, Ms. Karol possesses a crystalline singing voice. Her duets with Nelson on such titles as “If I Had a Wish,” and “Good Night,” carry a lush romanticism.

Providing those two well-meaning characters with plenty of trouble is Chris Caputo, who brings a commanding alpha-male presence and a simmering but delicious villainy as the nefarious Mr. Potter.

But if Potter is the dark prince of “A Wonderful Life,” Clarence is its bright light. Chris Senior conveys a charming guilelessness. Clarence seems almost like a geek — but a kind, loving one. His big production number, “Wings,” is all angelic chorines complete with symbolic heavenly clouds.

Many of the supporting cast members have character-rich faces that look as though they’ve been pulled right out of a 1940s Hollywood film. Their acting, too, is on target, creating a community peopled by the likes of Ron Lipp as George’s Uncle Billy, Elijah Orr as cop Bert, and Damon Williams as George’s younger brother, Harry Bailey. Other noteworthy performances perfectly portrayed were Trevin Stephenson as Ernie, Robin Harrison as Joseph, Kristen Daniels as Ruth Bailey (understudy to Amanda Hinchee), and Taylor Herbel as Violet Bick. Rounding out the supporting players were Mary Murphy-Nelson playing Mrs. Hatch, Vincent Aniceto portraying Sam Wainwright, with Robert Amberg and Sylvia Tomaselli Nelson as Tom Bailey and Milly Bailey respectively.

The ensemble, however, albeit too numerous to name, carried the show with their superb dancing and singing, featuring Jennifer Simpson-Matthews and Diane Makas’ choreography which reached its zenith in the razzle-dazzle Charleston dance-competition number, “In a State.”

The staging and scenery were minimal, but effective lighting and scene projection created an unnoticed end result. The ensemble helped to evoke nostalgic memories of “Our Town,” considering “A Wonderful Life” also takes place in a small Northeastern town in a warmly remembered past.

“A Wonderful Life” is a magical musical. It’s sentimental, sure, and old-fashioned, but it’s also as emotionally affecting as anything you could see this Christmas season. This story of a good, hard-working man brought to the brink of despair by financial ruin is timeless, and could easily represent the struggles of any one of us. The players certainly do justice to these characters, and there were plenty of empathetic eyes in the audience at the play's happy ending close.

Next performance is slated for Friday, December 8th. For tickets, please contact box office at

Chris Daniels


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