Is there anyone who does not know the heartwarming story of A Wonderful Life? Following closely the original plot of the 1945 film, the musical version, with a book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Joe Raposo, also tells the story of a suicidal man whose guardian angel reveals to him how different the world would be had he never been born.
In brief, Clarence, an apprentice angel, tries to win his wings by talking the distraught George Bailey out of taking his own life. We see the key moments leading up to this climax when George has had to give up his bigger dreams and spend his life in the small town of Bedford Falls, New York, George Bailey trying to help the townsfolk buy and keep their homes in the face of the Great Depression. He romances and marries his high-school sweetheart Mary and battles Henry Potter, the greedy banker who won’t stop until he owns all of Bedford Falls.
But, desperate and anguished over letting the community and his family down, George decides life isn’t worth living, and it’s only through the intervention of Clarence that George sees what the people he loved would be like if he had never lived and realizes that, even with all his problems, he does in fact have a wonderful life. In the denouement, Potter’s latest evil plan is thwarted, George embraces his family, and Clarence gets his long-awaited wings.
Embodying the true spirit of community and family, more than sixty people in the production staff, orchestra, and cast of The Reisterstown Theatre Project’s (RTP), have created a lovingly produced and enthusiastically performed show for the whole family.
Music is clearly the main thing that distinguishes this production from the film, and the RTP team did a great job. Music Director Lauren Warner led the cast and worked with director and rehearsal pianist William Zellhofer, Conductor Andrew Zile, and the ten-piece orchestra.
On the acting side, however, the show rests on the shoulders of whoever plays George Bailey, and it’s hard to imagine RTP finding a better performer than J. Purnell Hargrove. Mr. Hargrove is a gifted actor and singer and, from the emotional opening number, drew us in and took us on the familiar and difficult journey. He carried the show beautifully, and nailed the very difficult Sondheim-like song, “Precious Little.”
As George’s love and wife, Mary Hatch, Kali Baklor was a great partner and anchor, and gave a strong and well-rounded performance. Her duets with Hargrove: “If I Had a Wish,” “Good Night,” and the reprise of “A Wonderful Life,” which ends the first act, were heartwarming and nicely performed. Baklor’s delivered an emotional rendition of “I Couldn’t Be with Anyone but You.”
George’s family was well-portrayed by Nolly Murray (his mother, Milly), Bob Hilton (Uncle Billy), Michael Nichols (brother Harry) and Doug Kotula (father Tom, whose death sets the story in motion and seals George’s fate).
The heavenly duo of Joey Rolandelli (Clarence) and Dani Ciscell (Matthew) provided comic contrast to the sometimes serious action in George’s home and office, however Mr. Rolandelli’s performance shone best when he joined George on earth. Their performance of “Wings” was a showstopper.
While Jerry Gietka’s singing was not as strong as the other principals, his acting was appropriately malevolent as the greedy and sociopathic Henry Potter and he was ably supported in his evil deeds by Brooke Nixon (Harriet/Dorothy).
Mikayla Trainor (Mr. Martini) and Amy Stockdale (Mrs. Martini) really brought their characters to life, as did Sophie Schmidt (Mrs. Carter the bank examiner/Lillian).
Several family groups contributed to this production. The Rudais helped both behind the scenes on the production staff (Pat and Amy) and on stage (Amy (Mrs. Hatch/Stuart), Andrea (George’s son Tommy, and PJ), and Samantha and Victoria in the Ensemble).
The Hunt family team consisted of Assistant Director Jackie Hunt and cast members Chloe (Karen Zimmer/Bank Teller/Detective), Sydney (Violet Bick), and Amelia (Ensemble).
Will Hollaway played the wealthy Sam Wainwright, and Mea was in the Ensemble and providedthe choreography, including George and Mary’s cute tap number. This was Zack Tasker’s fifth show working stage crew with RTP, but he also played the minister (his first appearance in front of the curtain) and Ben Tasker was in the Ensemble. Hope Standish Pallanck was in the Ensemble, and Ann Pallanck worked on the production staff. There were probably even more that were not listed in the program!
The three Bailey children were played by Grace Volpe (Beth), Andrea Rudai (Tommy), and Samantha White, and Maeve Williams (Zuzu). They all did a great job.
Other supporting cast members included Anika Sonuga (Ruth Reynolds), Carly Victor (Accountant) and Kathlyn Wengler (Mrs. Hepner), and the hard-working Ensemble also included Rianna Zeydelis, and Tanisha Magruder.
Kudos go to Director Mike Zellhofer and Stage Manager Amanda Hixenbaugh for keeping the pacing up and the show moving, although the delivery of pizza to the angels in the beginning of the second act probably wasn’t necessary.
In addition, Set Designers Jordan Hollett and Jenifer Grundy-Hollett and their builders are to be commended for their simple but creative touches, especially for the wonderful painted backdrop. Technical Director Ann Pallanck also deserves mention for some excellent lighting touches especially in the Henry Potter and final climactic scenes, and Mea Holloway’s and Amy Rudai’s costumes served well in taking us back to the 1928-1935 period.
RTP is part of the Reisterstown Recreation Council in the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks. The cast, orchestra, and crew appeared to be part of a wonderful community effort, and their enthusiasm was clearly reflected in the supportive patron ads in the program and the interest and involvement of the nearly sold-out audience.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
A Wonderful Life plays again tonight at 8 PM and tomorrow at 2 PM at The Reisterstown Theatre Project, performing at Franklin Middle School – 10 Cockeys Mill Road, in Reisterstown, MD (at the intersection of Main Street and Cockeys Mill Road). For tickets, buy them at the door or online.