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Interplayers’ ‘Wonderful Life’ is not the film but still charms

Tue., Dec. 4, 2012

The beloved film “It’s a Wonderful Life” comes to life this holiday season on Interplayers Theatre’s stage.

In Joe Landry’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” five actors play several dozen characters as they present the story as a 1940s radio broadcast, directed by Jeff Sanders. The tale centers on George Bailey, a banker who contemplates jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve in the face of financial and personal ruin.

In Friday night’s performance, pianist Ben Bentler prepared the audience by playing familiar Christmas carols, putting a spring into the step of some.

The set, designed by Michael Ward, represented a 1940s radio studio with old-fashioned microphones and an elaborate setup in the back with a variety of sound-making objects, including jars of small items, a metronome, a pair of shoes, a box of bottles and more.

Lovers of the film and live theater should note that this production is a story within a story, not simply a play version of the film. It is fun to watch the actors quickly shift positions and their voices to create the many characters. And all the sound effects are done by the cast. It is amazing to see what sounds a box of glass, miniature door and a deck of cards can conjure.

Meanwhile, the characters, i.e. the radio actors, are embroiled in their own dramas behind the scenes.

Tamara Schupman’s variety of vocalizations, ranging from a nasal secretary to Bailey’s youngest child, Zuzu, were excellent and delivered with humor. Riding a stationary bike while holding a hand-held harp, in a straight skirt no less, was quite a challenge for her. Disembarking was nearly impossible and very funny.

Todd Kehne, as George Bailey, was up to the task, playing the good-hearted yet conflicted father; however, he tended to channel actor James Stewart a bit too much. Audiences feel for Bailey because of his struggle and his devotion to his wife, not because of a particular voice pattern.

Bethany Hart, as George’s wife, Mary, was sweet and their interactions were heartfelt and romantic. Other members of the ensemble included Jerry Sciarrio and Patrick Treadway.

All the performers moved seamlessly from character to character, sometimes instantaneously.

Telling George’s story as a radio play, however, did have its drawbacks. One serious George-Mary scene was interrupted by a goofy radio commercial for men’s hair tonic. The commercial was humorous, but the author’s choice to spoil a beautiful moment was confusing.

And much impact was lost in Mr. Potter’s betrayal in this radio play version compared to the film. This had more to do with the script than the direction.

Despite that this show is not the Frank Capra film classic and not presented as a traditional play per se, it still contains all those characters and moments we love about the story. A bell still rings. Kindness still wins out, and Clarence the angel still gets his wings.

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