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REVIEW: It's a Wonderful Life - A Live Radio Play -- STAGEStheatre, Fullerton

"...If you adore the original, you’ll love this perfectly sweet stage production!"

Turn back the clock to the 1940s and set your dial for a double dose of holiday nostalgia. This lovely, evocative version of “It’s a Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play,” by Joe Landry, harkens back to the golden age of radio, and is performed as a live radio show in front of a studio audience. Conceived and drawn directly from Frank Capra’s classic film, a talented ensemble of actors tells the story of George Bailey and the one fateful Christmas Eve he considered ending his life. It's a holiday treat you will want to share with the entire family, and is this year's traditional holiday offering from STAGEStheatre in Fullerton, running through December 22nd.

This charming 1996 piece was adapted by Landry from the screenplay by Capra, Jo Swerling, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. The stage production follows the movie faithfully, with ten actors voicing literally all the roles as if performing an over-the-airwaves Christmas Eve radio drama in an elegant, warmly lit studio at Rockefeller Center’s WSTG in New York City.

Thanks to a set by Jim Book’s Handless Man Theatrics of Fullerton, the actors, who portray famous radio actors of old, read the familiar lines at microphones, scripts in hand, as in the days when families would encircle around the radio after dinner. Rich Good (playing Freddie Filmore, who you may remember began his career on the Jack Benny Show) hosts the radio show and initially introduces the cast. Mr. Good will also play Joseph, the “chief angel” who assists Clarence in getting his wings.

Directed by Amanda DeMaio, "It's a Wonderful Life - A Live Radio Play" rolls along like a well-oiled machine. Familiar line follows familiar line as Landry's adaptation glides from one plot point to the next by a small coterie of actors who masterfully play a multitude of vivid, believable characters, switching accent, tone and cadence on a dime. In some productions, there are as few as five voice actors handling all the parts of the play.

Also onstage are piano accompanist Vic Miller (alternating shows with Jeffrey Larson) and Foley Artist Jon Gaw (alternating with Calvin Ballard) who creates a range of inventive special effects and clever artifice such as footsteps, slamming doors, water splashes and corks popping, making it easy for the audience to get caught up in the compelling narrative.

“It's a Wonderful Life…” is nearly as well known to most of us as Dickens' “A Christmas Carol,” which it closely resembles. Good old "mossback George," as his pals call him, is the quintessential everyman, hardworking but driven by love and duty more than a quest for the almighty dollar. Growing up in Bedford Falls, New York, George Bailey (Sean Hesketh) has big plans to travel the world and become an architect or city planner. But little twists of fate keep intervening. His father has a stroke. The Depression hits, causing a run on the banks.

The town's richest man, evil old Mr. Potter (Frank Tryon), tries to muscle in on the Bailey family business, a struggling building and loan that helps working folk build houses and move out of Potter's high-rent shacks. Mr. Tryon brings a commanding alpha-male presence and a simmering but delicious villainy as the nefarious Mr. Potter.

Instead of going abroad and then to college, George stays behind. His younger brother, Harry (Cameron Murray), gets the breaks, using George's savings to earn a degree. George then takes a wife (Darri Kristin playing Mary Hatch) and begins a family. But when absent-minded old Uncle Billy (Paul Burt) accidentally hands an $8,000 bank deposit to Mr. Potter, George panics. Full of self-doubt that gnaws away at his essential decency, and with Potter seizing the chance to ruin the humble family business, George sees suicide — and the insurance settlement after his death — as the only way out.

Now for the heartwarming part: George's desperate jump into an icy river is foiled by the appearance of Clarence (Frank Valdez), a 292-year-old guardian angel sent to earth to prove to George that his life is worth living. To do that, he guides George on a Christmas Eve tour of snowy Bedford Falls, showing him what life there would've been like had he never been born.

Without George to keep her from it, Violet (Jennifer Siglin), the town's tarty beauty, has descended into being the town strumpet. Old pharmacist Mr. Gower (Paul Burt) is a rummy bum, having done time in the pen for dispensing poison accidentally since young George wasn't around to stop him. George's wife has become a spinster librarian. And Potter has turned the village into a sleazy, dirty "Pottersville."

You don't see any of this in front of you, of course, as they read through the story at STAGEStheatre. In radio play style, the talented troupe of actors throw all their energy into creating an impressive array of voices for the population of Bedford Falls. Director DeMaio adds some cute bits now and then to make it visually interesting. Special Effects may rattle something, creating a moment for actors to improvise some cover dialogue. Paul Burt may be handed a hanky to mop his damp forehead as he works up a head of steam voicing a number of roles, often changing intonations and accents midstream as his characters argue with each other.

The "applause" sign cues the audience when to clap, as if we needed help in that direction, just as it would have at a live radio broadcast way back when. And, just to seal that illusion, the commercial breaks (that are both written and sung to Christmas carol melodies) for hair tonic and Dux Toilet Cakes help keep your senses in an early, authentic 20th century mindset.

The actors have been well cast for their vocal dexterity and versatility. Almost all play alternating roles on other dates of the show. Steve Biggs alternately interchanges with Rich Good as host of the show. Frank Tryon also plays George Bailey in other shows; Kathleen Switzer swaps with Darri Kristin as Mary, George’s wife, and also plays bad girl, Violet (well, bad by Bedford Falls standards).

Clarence is also played by John S. Francis. Sean Hesketh alternately plays rotten old Mr. Potter, sounding a lot like Lionel Barrymore. Judy Mina-Ballard portrays Rose Bailey, the mother. Uncle Billy is portrayed also by Cameron Murray. Zuzu is Wendi de Barros. Calvin Ballard is on Sound Effects, other shows. Jeffrey Larson handles the fluctuating keyboards. And Rick Lawhorn and Erin Rendler share duties as Stage Manager. Wealthy pal Sam Wainwright and Italian-American bar owner Giuseppe Martini are by Paul Burt, Cameron Murray and Frank Tryon.

Ms. Kristin, looking splendid in her flattering A-line tea dress, plays Mary Hatch (Bailey) with just enough oomph to make her alluring. Ms. Mina-Ballard, with a voice as warm as a cup of cocoa, gets the role of Mary's bossy mother. George and Mary's little girl, Zuzu (the one with the petals), is innocently played by Ms. De Barros. Mr. Hesketh steps fluidly into Jimmy Stewart’s best-known role as George Bailey as he navigates through the course of the story with all the earnestness and compassion of the film’s predecessor, ranging from happy-go-lucky to utter despair, then 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.

It's all dynamically acted and presented with much flair. You'll probably remember how it looked in the movie as these "radio" actors go through the scenes. But unlike watching the James Stewart movie on television, you'll be able to clap for these performances. No applause sign needed.

The Set is supervised also by Jon Gaw, who also is the Technical Director. Lighting by Kalen “Lighthouse” Cobb lends a creamy glow. The actors are costumed by “The Amazingly Talented Cast” in attractive period suits and dresses. Hairstyles and Makeup look post WWII and help date the story very effectively. Sound Design is by Buck Maxwell. Patti Cumby serves as Publicity as well as Producer.

As a film, the masterpiece from Frank Capra is now considered one of the greatest movies ever made. If you adore the original, you’ll love this perfectly sweet stage production, now a benchmark annual standard at STAGEStheatre, but even though you know there’s a happy ending, it still evokes some misty eyes in the final scene. Actually I think even my heart grew three sizes that day. Maybe it’s truly a wonderful life, after all.

Highly Recommended!! This production will close soon! The final show is set for December 22nd. Secure your tickets here while you can!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer


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