As far as enchanting holiday entertainment is considered, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at Bucks County Playhouse may just be the warm mug of cocoa you’re looking for this time of year. A reimagined version of the classic American film, this adaptation by Joe Landry turns the heartwarming tale into a live 1940’s radio broadcast performed for and with a little help from the “studio” audience, cued by a handy applause sign when necessary. With just a few microphones and their trusty scripts, a flexible cast of six takes on the dozens of characters who inhabit the familiar Bedford Falls, supported by the quick and clever direction of Hunter Foster and musical staging by Jennifer Cody.
You can’t help but be instantly transported by the delightful atmosphere the moment you enter the theater. Surrounded by twinkling lights and a rustic charm, an authentically antique scenic design by Rob Bissinger accompanied by Matthew Given’s perfectly tuned sound design puts you right inside the coziest of idyllic Christmas cards. After a few carols from the cast and an introduction to the radio world, the “on the air” sign glows green and we’re off. This fast-paced take on one of the holiday’s most famous movies is a whirlwind of hat swapping, microphone juggling, and page turning, with enough inventive voices to fill the troubled history of a well-meaning hometown hero, George Bailey, and the circumstances that bring him to consider taking his own life.
Wayne Alan Wilcox portrays a charming and genuine George Bailey. He towers idealistically above the rest of the cast and beams with affection for the delightful Whitney Bashor in the role of Mary (among others), his adoring wife. Maggie Lakis lends a unique and comical touch to each of her many personas, most notably the precious Zuzu who caught a cold on the way home from school while cradling a precious flower. Brandon J. Ellis and Kevin Pariseau skillfully cover most of the remaining characters including guardian angel Clarence and the dastardly Mr. Potter, respectively. But keep your eyes on the busy Garth Kravits behind the foley station. With a table full of miscellany, he creates the footsteps, wind howls, door slams, and car horns that give the radio show its life.
While the action at times may move a tad too fast for the actors to hit all of the potential depths of each and every character, there is hardly a dull moment to be had. Just when it seems the novelty of the radio format has worn off, a commercial interrupts the action for a bit of good old-fashioned 1940’s product placement. Similarly, Foster takes hold of the play’s most emotional moments and allows the audience to see them outside the lens of the radio show. The microphones disappear when Clarence gives George a peek at what life would be like if he were never born, giving the integral scene a much welcomed eeriness in an otherwise kind-hearted retelling.
Both Foster and his cast have an uncanny knack for musicality. Actors strum guitars or plunk out tunes on the nearby piano, all the while lending impeccable vocals to the various songs. Not just a treat for the ears, a tasteful touch of dance here and there highlights just how at ease the cast is with one another, rounding out the joy that they find in pure storytelling. Nicole V. Moody’s costumes are minimal but meaningful helping to evoke many of the scenes and characters in tandem with Rob Denton’s active and engaging lighting design.
For most, the story will be familiar, and knowing the film will definitely help in keeping up with the action, as some characters tend to blend together as the show proceeds. While some moments may be less rewarding in the sparse radio structure, the ones that truly work show off what kind of electricity can happen when you pair emotion with imagination. The mixture of old-fashioned and fresh give It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play its sizzle, and make it exciting to relive the story in this new context even if it is an old favorite.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play plays through December 27, 2015 at Bucks County Playhouse – 70 South Main Street in New Hope, PA. For tickets call the box office at (215) 862-2121 or purchase them online.