It’s a Wonderful Life:
The Radio Play
A ‘wonderful’ Wonderful Life
|American Theater Company presents|
|It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play|
Review by Joy Campbell
In 1974, Republican Films, the company that owned the rights to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” forgot to renew its copyright of the film. This oversight allowed one of the most loved films of all time to enter the public domain, and for eleven years The American Theater Company has been bringing the story to holiday-season audiences in a radio-play adaptation of the film by Frank Gabrielson.
In this charming play-within-a-play, we are the live-studio audience in a 1940s radio studio (a beautiful period set by Tom Burch). Greeted and guided by friendly station personnel and a charismatic announcer (Chris Amos), we are integrated into the show via “on air” quizzes, responses to the APPLAUSE sign, and “live” readings during breaks of radiograms written by audience members to loved ones (that audiences may be recorded live for broadcast on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio lends an extra element of fun).
With the exception of Cliff Chamberlain as George Bailey, the actors play multiple roles, transitioning smoothly (and in many cases quickly) from one to the other, aided by pianist Rhapsody Snyder and impressive Foley Artist Rick Kubes (the Foley man is the guy in the corner with all the gadgets who magically creates ambient sounds from trains to doors opening to crickets chirping in the evening.)
It’s a tight cast and production, and in true old-fashioned radio style, a picture is vividly painted in sound, although there is some acting out of parts and minor miming of action, adding a nice visual touch.
As George Bailey, Chamberlain captures the enthusiasm of the character immortalized by actor Jimmy Stewart, even bringing out some of Stewart’s vocal traits without turning it into sheer mimicry. Especially entertaining is Tony Lawry, who plays a fair number of roles, switching vocalization, expression, and posture to excellent effect.
There is one inexplicable departure from the film: instead of a flower, Zuzu brings home an ”angel bell.” Whether this is to cater to the auditory nature of the show, I don’t know, but there is no benefit that I can see to this change, and to remove something as iconic as Zuzu’s petals is unnecessary and certain to irritate fans of the film. The bells-angel wings connection is mentioned elsewhere, so again, this choice is puzzling.
The other thing that is a bit off is the show’s ending, which is indefinite and weak. The show ends, the radio cast takes a bow, the announcer says goodnight, we go “off the air” and people wander off. I wonder whether it might be more effective to announce the actors at the end as part of the finish, rather than at the start of the show.
Despite these somewhat minor issues, fans will appreciate this engaging 90-minute adaptation, which faithfully tells the story of one man’s unique opportunity to see how his seemingly ordinary, unexciting life made such a difference to so many. Let’s give thanks that Republican Films forgot their paperwork (administrative glitch or divine intervention by one C. Oddbody? You decide.)
It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play continues through December 30th at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $35-$40, and are available online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at atcweb.com. (Running time: 90 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Elissa Shortridge
Cliff Chamberlain (George Bailey); Mike Nussbaum (Mr. Potter, Clarence, Others); Tony Lawry (Mr. Bailey, Uncle Billy, Joseph, others); Sadieh Rifai (Mary Hatch, Mrs. Bailey); Tyler Ravelson (Harry Bailey, Ernie, others); Jessie Fisher (Violet, Mrs. Hatch, others); Rhapsody Snyder (Pianist); Muriel Montgomery (Female Understudy), Chase McCurdy (Male Understudy)
behind the scenes
Jason W. Gerace (director); Josh Jaeger (asst. director); Tom Burch (scenic design); Elsa Hiltner (costume design); Mac Vaughey (lighting design); Amanda Sager (sound design); Daniel J. Hanson (stage manager); Muriel Montgomery, Chase McCurdy (station managers); PJ Paparelli (artistic director); Elissa Shortridge (photos)