‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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It is normally difficult to translate classic Christmas movies to the stage because comparisons with the beloved films are inevitable. However, It’s A Wonderful Life at Toby’s Dinner Theatre is truly a wonderful production and they very clearly form the production within their own unique style, featuring spectacular performances from a very talented cast, excellent technical elements, and innovative blocking in an in-the-round styled space.

Katie Keyser (Mary Bailey) and Matthew Schleigh (George Bailey). Photo by Teri Tidwell Photography.
Katie Keyser (Mary Bailey) and Matthew Schleigh (George Bailey). Photo by Teri Tidwell Photography.

This heartwarming production has outstanding direction by Toby Orenstein, clever staging by Tina Marie DeSimone, and fantastic musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings.

It’s A Wonderful Life has music and lyrics by David Nehls and a book adaptation by Michael Tilford, based on the famous 1946 Christmas movie. George Bailey is a young man with big dreams to travel the world and leave behind his small town of Bedford Falls. After chaotic events occur and George makes one personal sacrifice after another, both to help his family and neighbors at various points throughout his life and stop the evil banker, Mr. Potter, from gaining complete financial control of Bedford Falls, George finds himself an everyday family man, trapped in his small town. With a financial crisis looming, he is convinced he would be better off dead than alive. In a divine intervention, an “Angel Second Class,” or angel-in-training, Clarence, is sent to Earth to help George realize the value that one man can have on everyone’s life.

Matthew Schleigh is extremely energetic and optimistic as wholesome everyman, George Bailey. Schleigh naturally brought a wonderful warmth and charisma to the role and resisted any slight temptation to imitate James Stewart’s vocal or physical performance, making the role fully his own. Schleigh expertly displayed the eventual effects of George’s maturity and aging process by slight physical changes throughout the show.

Katie Keyser is endearing as Mary Hatch Bailey. She turned what could have been a cloying or sickeningly sweet stock-character ingenue in lesser hands into a genuine, fully developed character brimming with strength and determination. Her solo “My Wish is You” was charming and she and David James were phenomenal in their Act II duet “If Only I Could Reach Him.”

As angel in training, Clarence, David James not only earned his wings, but clearly stole the show. James was incredibly quirky and displayed excellent comedic timing. His solo “Ya Gotta Have Wings” was a highlight in Act II and gave James a chance to display some outstanding physical versatility as he jumped, slid and danced around stage.

L to R: David Bosley-Reynolds (Joseph) and David James as (Clarence). Photo by by Teri Tidwell Photography.
L to R: David Bosley-Reynolds (Joseph) and David James as (Clarence). Photo by by Teri Tidwell Photography.

David Bosley-Reynolds was fantastic as head angel, Joseph, and played an excellent “straight man” to many of James’ zany comedic antics.

Mr. Potter was terribly vindictive and vicious as Robert Biedermann brought the villain-you-love-to-hate alive onstage. Biedermann’s crisp diction and vocal tone was excellent for the cruel banker and he made some noticeably drastic physical changes to show the progression of Potter’s aging between Act I and Act II. Biedermann did such a convincing job as the villain that he was actually booed at the curtain call!

Andrew Horn was lovably scatterbrained and jolly as Uncle Billy and Tina Marie DeSimone was hilarious as his overbearing wife, Aunt Tillie. Lynne Sigler was incredibly tender as Mrs. Bailey and had a fantastic emotional breakdown during her solo in the “Requiem for the Common Man” in Act II.

Justin Calhoun is a frantic ball of energy as the happy go lucky younger brother and later soldier, Harry Bailey. Jeremy Scott Blaustein is accurately annoying as rival suitor Sam Wainwright, with a fantastic nasal character voice. Susan Thornton completely stole the love scene between George and Mary with her performance as Mrs. Hatch, Mary’s mother. Her character voice was hilarious and her comedic interjections were perfectly timed.

The child actors were adorable, as expected, and all gave very strong performances. At this performance, Jace Franco and Caroline Otchet gave incredible performances in a clever dual casting choice as Young George Bailey and Mary and later as their children, Pete and Janey in Act II.

Matthew Schleigh displayed a lovely tender moment with Lilianna Robinson, playing Zuzu, during “Lullaby” and the effect used to introduce Robinson was adorable and comical, as was her performance. (At alternating performances, Young George Bailey/Pete is played by Gavin Willard, Young Mary/ Janey is played by Samantha Bloom Yakaitis and Zuzu is played by Sophie Crossland)

The ensemble was filled with very talented singers and dancers who brought a lively energy to each big production number. The ensemble includes Shawn Kettering, Samn Huffer, Lawrence B. Munsey, Jeffrey Shankle, MaryKate Brouillet, Julia Lancione, CobyKay Callahan, Heather Marie Beck, Darren McDonnell, Santina Maiolatesi, Dean Davis and AJ Whittenberger.

Choreography by Tina Marie DeSimone was crisp and the “Syncopation Rag” during the dance sequence was a real showstopper.

One of the strongest assets of the production was the outstanding blocking. Actors were consistently positioned in vivid stage pictures and the action and pacing was incredibly quick to keep the story flowing throughout various times and locations in the show.

A particularly memorable blocking choice occurs during the staging for Mary’s solo “My Wish Is You,” as George continues pantomiming having a conversation while moving around the theater with his back to Mary as she sings of her love for him.  Without revealing too much of the surprise, another phenomenal choice occurred in the scene transition  from the bar to the cemetery during the “Pottersville” sequence in Act II and was completely unexpected, but very well-executed.

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The set, designed by David A. Hopkins, was beautifully simple, with an impressive bridge hoisted above stage and nostalgic small town landscapes. Lighting by Coleen M. Foley was particularly impressive during the “Pottersville” sequence in a sharp contrast to the tone of the rest of the show. Lighting was also nicely used during some of the moments where other characters onstage were frozen during sequences of dialogue between the angels and during solos. Costumes, designed by Samn Huffer, were beautifully bright and perfectly showed the passing of time from the 1920s through the 1940s as evidenced by the changing styles in all of the characters’ wardrobes.

You will have a wonderful time at Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s gorgeous production of It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s the perfect holiday show for the entire family.

Running Time: Two hours and 3o hours, with one 20-minute intermission.

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It’s A Wonderful Life plays through January 10, 2016 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS, or purchase them online.

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