‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ at CENTERSTAGE

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Following its successful runs of the epic play Amadeus and the rock musical Next to Normal, CENTERSTAGE lines up a fantastic family rendering of Frank Capra’s beloved holiday classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, as the third main stage production of its 2014-15 Season.

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Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio, III, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play creatively combines the beloved film with the golden age of radio. Set in a 1940s radio “WBAL” studio, designed by Michael Locher, the show features a live sound effects artist/percussionist/pianist (Anthony Stultz) and five actors (Pun Bandhu, Ken Krugman, Joseph McGranaghan, Chiara Motley, and Eileen Rivera) who play every character in the production.

“The movie lives in three places – in the film itself, it lives in our audience’s memory of the film and it also lives in the live event we’re creating here,” Eusebio explains. “The key is not to imitate the film, but to take the heart of it, so it triggers the audience’s memory, it invokes it, and finally it allows us to inspire from that.”

As in the post-World War II era, audience members experience the magic of It’s a Wonderful Life much like a 1947 studio audience did when Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed performed the script live over the air shortly after its Academy Award nominations were announced. Under Eusebio’s artistic direction, the production closely follows the original film’s plotline, but in a more innovative, improvisational and imaginative presentation.

Film fans may recall, George Bailey (Joseph McGranaghan) has grown up in Bedford Falls, an idyllic small town, determined to get out. He plans to travel the world and build skyscrapers when he grows up. However, circumstances keep him at home. His father dies. The rich, evil Mr. Potter (Ken Krugman) tries to liquidate the Bailey family’s savings-and-loan business and take over the town. George’s brother, Harry (Pun Bandhu), marries a great woman whose father has offered him a promising career opportunity, far away from his hometown. When the accidental loss of $8,000 leaves George on the verge of disaster, he contemplates killing himself.
The heartwarming moment is lingering right around the corner, as Clarence (Pun Bandhu), George’s slightly bumbling 292-year-old guardian angel, comes to earth to help him. By showing George what Bedford Falls and numerous loved ones would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence manages to turn him around. Which is no surprise, since apparently without George, the town would have turned into pitiable Pottersville long ago. Lifted from a suicidal depression, George Bailey is a man with a reawakened appreciation of his life and the people he loves.

In this It’s a Wonderful Life, the actors, dressed in fashions and accessories suggesting that their characters live in the golden age of radio, almost certainly the 1940s, begin standing in front of microphones, scripts in hand, but they are soon moving about on and off the stage, gesturing and interacting in lively, realistic ways, with the help of only the radio-age equivalent of sound design. Seemingly true to life, the show appealed to rally its targeted Baltimore-area audience members by featuring an entertaining Old Bay commercial with a tuneful song that rouse applause and laughter.WonderfulLife_CS_2014

Each of the five actors playing all of the roles in the adaption of Frank Capra’s script make their CENTERSTAGE debut with great panache and fervor. With the help of Director Nelson T. Eusebio, III, the cast create surprisingly vivid and fully believable characters — dozens of them. In addition to Mr. Potter, Ken Krugman also plays, among other characters, Uncle Billy; George’s son; the old man on the front porch telling George to kiss his future wife, Mary; and God. Pun Bandhu’s characters include Clarence the angel; George’s war-hero brother; Sam Wainwright; and the proud bar owner and homeowner Giuseppe Martini.

The very versatile Eileen Rivera’s characters include Violet, the town’s “bad girl”; George’s mother; Mary’s mother; and George’s daughter, Zuzu. Krugman, Bandu and Rivera’s respective portrayal of Mr. Potter, Clarence and Violet are particularly impressive and memorable. Likewise, Chiara Motley plays a convincing Mary, and Joseph McGranaghan does an outstanding job as George. Anthony Stultz, the onstage Foley artist, is literally instrumental in heightening the production quality with his sharp precision and inventive sound effects, effectively employing everything from a thunder sheet to a wind machine to a vintage siren – all on-the-fly.

Setting the dial high for a double dose of nostalgia, CENTERSTAGE’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play strikingly brings to life, in a delightfully poignant stage adaptation, Frank Capra’s beloved holiday season drama of sacrifice and redemption in an endearing, evocative exhibition that hearkens back to the golden age of radio when families gathered together for inspirational broadcasts and wholesome entertainment, splendidly recreating the much-loved celebration of goodwill, community and cheer in the face of hardship.

Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

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It’s a Wonderful Life plays through December 21, 2014 at CENTERSTAGE—700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD.  For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.