Review: TheatreWorks 'Wonderful Life' a sweet, fascinating break from holiday demands

By Tracy Mobley-Martinez Updated: December 18, 2013 at 8:05 am • Published: December 17, 2013 | 1:30 pm 0

You know the drill. Cooking. Shopping. Wrapping. Decorating. More cooking. Card sending. Managing kids, relatives, traveling, parties - and everyone's hard-wired expectations of the holidays.

It's no wonder that the sweetness and charm of the season is often obscured by ... well, real life.

Last week, though, I discovered a rosy little corner of Christmas at "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," a TheatreWorks production that runs through Sunday. The inventive setting and staging, a spot-on radio station set and costumes by Jo Winiarski and Roselaine Fox, respectively, combine with performances that are part technically fascinating, part period perfect, part downright endearing. I left feeling like I'd just downed a hot toddy of holiday spirit.

You probably know the story: Faced with financial ruin and jail, George Bailey decides that the pay-off from his life insurance is worth more than his life. On the verge of suicide, an angel named Clarence steps in to show Bailey the powerful impact he had on his town, his family and people he never even knew.

Joe Landry's 1997 adaptation follows the Frank Capra film (itself an adaptation of the 1945 short story called "The Greatest Gift") closely enough for audience members to recite the lines.

Landry, though, judiciously trimmed scenes that worked visually in the film (for instance, young George Bailey's search for his father after discovering the druggist had mistakenly used poison in pills), but would unnecessarily drag down a radio presentation.

The radio setting is sheer genius, by the way, because it allows for multiple layers of storytelling: "Wonderful Life" in the foreground and behind it, the fictional actors performing multiple roles for the live radio audience. And the fast pacing of actors shifting from one defined character to the next (a few times voicing two character in conversation) was a spectacle in itself. The relationships of the fictional cast, which are telegraphed in gestures, mouth words and a tilt of a chin, were an interesting counterpoint to those in the main attraction.

As for performances, they should all get As for the character shuffling alone. Standouts include Sammie Joe Kinnett as Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood, Clarence the angel, Harry Bailey, Bert the cop and many others, and Logan Ernstthal as the announcer, Mr. Potter, Uncle Billy and others. Both did some spectacular quick changes and yet delivered nuanced (if sometimes purposely cartoonish) portrayals throughout. Becca Vourvoulas mustered the perfect note for Mary Hatch nee Bailey: Spunky in a 1940's way. Kate Gleason turned on the choochie-choochie for Violet Bick and yet, took on all the maternal groundedness of George's mom. Pianist Mark Arnest, who did the sound effects (including plunging his hand into a bucked of ice water to suggest Clarence's dive into the icy water), didn't say a word, but was fun to watch.

John DiAntonio's Bailey clearly referenced Jimmy Stewart's trademark delivery. He's likeable, with a lanky, ah-shucks physicality that also suggested Stewart. Still, DiAntonio never veered into outright imitation of Stewart's George. He preserved the flavor of the film character, while finding his own footing, his own timing and delivery in the work

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