At WaterTower Theatre, It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Earns its Wings

At this time of year, it's nice to remember that a valiant angel, not Valium, got George Bailey out of his funk. If you haven't yet reached the "bah humbug" threshold with the 1946 Frank Capra movie It's a Wonderful Life, the stage version subtitled A Live Radio Play and done just that way, will probably warm your cockles, too. It's the holiday offering at Addison's WaterTower Theatre and a welcome alternative to the cockle-curdling Rockin' Christmas Party revues they've fallen prey to out there in recent years.

This 1996 piece, first done professionally at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, was adapted by Joe Landry from the screenplay by Capra, Jo Swerling, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (which was based on a 1943 short story by Philip Van Doren Stern). It follows the movie faithfully, with five actors voicing all the roles as if performing an over-the-airwaves radio drama sometime in the 1940s. Also onstage are a lady pianist and a guy creating the effects of footsteps, slamming doors, water splashes and other audio effects.

The charming WaterTower production sets it all in an elegant, warmly lit studio at Rockefeller Center. Scenery by Rodney Dobbs achieves some pretty faux marble effects and a lovely "view" of the Rock Center Christmas tree. Lighting by Jeff Stover lends a creamy glow. The actors are costumed by Barbara Cox in attractive period suits and dresses. The ladies' hairstyles even look right, including the pianist's snood.

After some hammy audience warm-up by radio show host "Freddie Filmore" (B.J. Cleveland in a role whose name is borrowed from an I Love Lucy episode), the now-familiar story begins with the cast holding script pages as they step up to the old-timey standing microphones.

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 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 the run on the banks. The town's richest man, evil old Mr. Potter, 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.

Instead of going abroad and then to college, George stays behind. His younger brother, Harry, gets the breaks, using George's savings to earn a degree. He then takes a wife and snags a good job in another city. When absent-minded old Uncle Billy accidentally hands an $8,000 bank deposit to Mr. Potter, George panics. With Potter seizing the chance to ruin the humble Baileys, George sees suicide — and the insurance settlement after his death — as the only way out.

But George's desperate jump into an icy river is foiled by the appearance of Clarence, 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.

You know the rest; it's the best part of the beloved old movie. Without George to keep her from it, Violet, the town's tarty beauty, has descended into prostitution. Old pharmacist Mr. Gower is a rummy bum, having done time in the pen for dispensing poison since young George wasn't around to stop him. George's wife is a spinster librarian. And Potter has turned the village into a noisy, dirty "Pottersville." (Why is it so easy to imagine Donald Trump admiring Mr. Potter's skill for ruthless, tasteless urban development?)

You don't see any of this in front of you, of course, as they read through the story at WaterTower. In radio play style, the five actors throw all their energy into creating an impressive array of voices for the population of Bedford Falls. Director Mark Fleischer adds some cute bits now and then to make it visually interesting. The sound guy drops a big pan, creating a moment for actors to improvise some cover dialogue. Cleveland is handed a hanky to mop his damp forehead as he works up a head of steam voicing a dozen roles, often changing intonations and accents on a dime 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. The only inauthentic intrusions in this production are a couple of badly written, borderline tacky commercials for hair oil and "toilet cakes" that mark the transitions to the second and third acts in the play-within-the-play.

The actors have been well cast for their vocal dexterity. B.J. Cleveland plays God; Uncle Billy; one of George's sons; the old man on the porch who urges George to kiss his sweetheart, Mary; and rotten old Mr. Potter, sounding a lot like the movie's villain, Lionel Barrymore. Jim Johnson plays Clarence the angel; George's brother, Harry Bailey; wealthy pal Sam Wainwright; and Italian-American bar owner Giuseppe Martini.

Lydia Mackay, looking splendid in an emerald green skirt suit, plays Mary Bailey with just enough oomph to make her sexy, and she does the sounds of various crying infants (the way she mimics upset babies is pretty adorable). Jessica Cavanagh, with a voice as warm as a cup of cocoa, gets the roles of Mary's bossy mother; George and Mary's little girl, Zuzu (the one with the petals); flirty Violet Bick and several others. In the main role of George Bailey, reed-thin Matthew Laurence-Moore avoids any hint of Jimmy Stewart's stutter-y delivery and yet shares with the actor a way of delivering dialogue that makes it fall on the ear just right.

Scott Eckert handles the constant array of sound effects from his table stage left. Erin McGrew gives him an able assist on piano, organ and slamming door.

It's all perfectly lovely and sweet. You'll probably remember how it looked in the movie as these "radio" actors go through the scenes. But unlike watching it on TV, you'll be able to clap for these performances. No applause sign needed.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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