‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ at Riverside Center Dinner Theater

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Riverside Center Dinner Theater presents a nostalgic twist on Frank Capra’s beloved holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life, adapted by Joe Landry, with original music and arrangements by Kevin Connors. Before television, families gathered around their radio box to enjoy their programs, and Riverside takes you back to this era with a live radio play! The audience becomes a “live studio audience” for radio station WBFR as they broadcast their holiday special, and the result is the height of cleverness and charm.  Christopher Noffke directs this production, with musical direction by Jason J. Michael and technical direction by Anthony Cantrell.

The cast and Director of 'It's a Wonderful Life': Elizabeth Butler, Constance Shofi, Jason Michael, Christoper Noffke, Alan Hoffman, Devon Clark, Amber French and (front) Colby LeRoy. Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.
The cast and Director of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’: Elizabeth Butler, Constance Shofi, Jason Michael, Christoper Noffke, Alan Hoffman, Devon Clark, Amber French and (front) Colby LeRoy. Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.

For this, the stage and auditorium of Studio A at radio station WBFR takes over Riverside, with Set Designer Stefannie Smith giving it a cluttered-but-cozy atmosphere. Large “On Air” and “Applause” signs light up throughout the show, and dated tech pieces like heavy stand microphones and old radio boxes dot the stage. A window shows that you are in a skyscraper in New York City, and it being Christmas Eve, the studio is decorated for the season with trees, wreaths, and strings of holly. The set is detailed and lovely (including a well-stocked bar for the performers!), but my favorite part is a platformed area where the sound effects are done by the Stage Manager Mel Robins, played by Colby LeRoy. The props used to deliver specific sounds are incredibly clever: before sound tech boards, there was a guy plunging a mop up and down in a bucket of water to make the sound of water splashing! Lighting Designer Kathryn Moncure uses warm lighting for ambiance, and Costume Designer Gaye Law brings back the 1940s with sharp suits, belted dresses, and coiffed hairstyles.

It’s Christmas Eve 1946, and the radio personalities of WBFR chat amongst the audience before they go live on air with their production of It’s A Wonderful Life. Narrator and host Freddie Filmore (a fantastic performance by Jason J. Michael) introduces the cast to the studio audience, including Jake Laurents, Devon Clark as the lead George Bailey, Sally Applewhite, and Amber French as his wife, Mary Hatch.

The remaining performers (Elizabeth C. Butler (Delores Davison), Constance Shofi ( Lana Sherwood), and Alan Hoffman (Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood) juggle a number of different characters (twenty-five total characters among the seven actors) throughout the show. Watching the performers use a wide variety of voices, each one more unique than the last, is especially entertaining.

In one instance, Freddie Filmore voices two different characters in a single conversation, distinguishing each one by quickly  putting on and removing his glasses as if they were a hot potato!  In this fashion, they tell the story of George Bailey, a downhearted, suicidal  man who is visited by a guardian angel, who hopes to save him before it is too late. George Bailey gets to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born…and it turns out, it would be a bleak one indeed.

In this, we get two distinct performances by Devin Clark and Amber French as George and Mary Bailey. We get to go on George Bailey’s journey, and with him realize the hope and magic of the season, and we get an authentic and highly entertaining  live radio show. Holiday songs, jingles,  and commercial breaks (Kreml toilet cakes, anyone?) are inserted throughout for the full experience.

The performances are truly stellar, and the singing voices of the company are beautiful (George and Mary’s duet “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” is particularly nice). I especially loved Amber French, whose depiction of Mary Hatch would have made Donna Reed very proud. A compilation of choreographed Christmas carols end the show with warmth and heart.

Cast members of 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.
Cast members of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.’ Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.

While there are many lovely holiday shows to choose from this time of year, Riverside Center Dinner Theater’s It’s A Wonderful Life is a true contender. This show provides relief from the now overdone hype and commercialization of the season, and brings you to a place of nostalgia, charm, and warmth. Not only is this show extremely well-executed, but the particular twist itself is incredibly interesting and thrilling to watch.

Riverside Center Dinner Theater’s It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my favorite shows of the year. I highly recommend it! Don’t miss it!

Running Time:  Approximately two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

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It’s A Wonderful Life plays through January 4, 2015 at Riverside Center Dinner Theater– 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA. For reservations and tickets, call (540) 370-4300.