The actors in this holiday classic will deliver famous lines like, “Zuzu’s petals,” and “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
But they also have a few other duties, including:
• Dropping jelly beans onto a cookie sheet.
• Crunching a pile of corn flakes.
• Beating a scrub brush in rhythm.
That’s because this stage version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is performed as if it were a 1940s-style radio play. The actors are responsible for creating dozens of sound effects, including crickets chirping (a fingernail run along a pocket comb), a slap to the face (a belt folded and snapped) and train station noises (the aforementioned scrub brush).
In Interplayers’ upcoming “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” it all adds up to a new take on a familiar and beloved holiday classic.
“It reinvents the story for the audience,” said director Jeffrey Sanders, an Eastern Washington University theater professor. “… I want the experience to begin as soon as the audience walks in.”
The atmosphere will be ’40s-era radio studio and the theatergoers will be playing a role as well: That of the live studio audience, witnessing a broadcast being sent out live to millions of people.
Not only does it give a little twist to a story many people know by heart, it also creates its own kind of dramatic tension. Live radio can be “dangerous,” said Sanders with a laugh.
Todd Kehne plays the role of George Bailey, made legendary by Jimmy Stewart in the 1946 Frank Capra movie. Kehne said “those are big shoes to fill.”
“I don’t want to sound like I’m impersonating Jimmy Stewart,” Kehne said. “You want to put your own stamp on the role.”
But he knows the audiences expect at least a little bit of the old master.
“There will be certain lines that will get the Jimmy Stewart treatment a little more,” said Kehne.
The entire production faces a similar challenge – turning a beloved story into something new, while paying respect to the old.
“It’s a large shadow, no doubt about it,” Sanders said. “We all recognize the famous lines and famous scenes.”
But he compared it to the enduring appeal of “Hamlet”: We go back to it again and again to see what each actor will bring to it.
In this case, Sanders has assembled a five-person cast with some of Spokane’s most accomplished stage names. Kehne and Bethany Hart, as Mary, handle the lead roles. The other roles – angels, scalawags, taxi drivers and evil old men – will be voiced by the veteran trio of Patrick Treadway, Jerry Sciarrio and Tamara Schupman. Those three are also charged with creating most of the sound effects used in the play.
As in any radio play, the audience’s imagination will play a crucial role. It will be up to them to conjure up the snow falling on Bedford Falls.
That job may be a little bit easier with Frank Capra’s famous images still fresh in our minds, after all of these decades. Yet we can also feel free to conjure up something new and entirely our own. That’s the beauty of live radio – even if it’s not actually on the radio.
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