Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ at Washington Stage Guild

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It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Shares Timeless Message

Adapted by playwright Joe Landry, Washington Stage Guild’s It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a retelling of the classic tale with a comedic tinge. The comedy influence comes in the form of a play-within-a-play literary conceit framed like this: a group of radio voice actors in the late 1940s tell the story of savings and loan owner George Bailey and his guardian angel, Clarence (aka ‘ASC’, Angel Second Class), to a nationwide radio audience.

The show takes place in an imaginary radio studio A, complete with “applause” signs, at WGBS in Washington, D.C., Christmas Eve 1946; as an audience member, you “are there.” It was common practice by major studios in those days to promote a movie by putting on radio versions of newly-released motion pictures.

Julie-Ann Elliott, Jennifer Donovan, and Steven Carpenter. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Julie-Ann Elliott, Jennifer Donovan, and Steven Carpenter. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The story followed George Bailey – owner of Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan, a longtime rival of banker Henry F. Potter in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, New York, who had set aside his dreams in order to help others, and whose decision to take his own life to avoid his problems on Christmas Eve brought about the intervention of Clarence Odbody, his guardian angel. Clarence showed George the many lives he had affected and how different life would be had he never been born.

After a sound check by ubiquitous Live Sound Man Art Foley (the wonderful Steven Carpenter), the actors entered and did vocal and facial warmups. They all held scripts in their hands, which they no doubt acted as if they were acting from. From there, they took their places behind their microphones.

Then the play-within-a-play cast was introduced. Joe Brack was masterful as Jake Laurents\George Bailey. According to announcer Freddie Filmore (played by Vincent Clark, who also played It’s a Wonderful Life’s God, Potter and Uncle Billy), Laurents had starred on radio in a “boy detective” radio show, and Sally Applewhite\Mary Bailey (Jenny Donovan), had been Ms. Ohio 1943. The top-of-the-line cast was rounded out by Nick DePinto, who magnificently played Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood who played Clarence and several other characters in Wonderful Life, and Julie-Ann Elliott, who played Lana Sherwood, who most notably played Violet, the town temptress and Bailey’s mom.

I loved Brack and Donovan’s singing “Buffalo Girls” as the to-be couple George and Mary Bailey. Foley’s “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death” line as Old Man Collins, was hilarious. Clark was impressive as Bailey’s Uncle Billy and Potter. Donovan excelled as Mary.

Bailey’s showdown with the Scrooge-like Potter was more intense than the movie version. In the excellent second act, in which Bailey sees what the world would be without him, Brack stood upon the apex of acting as he met the downtrodden inhabitants of a town now called Pottersville.

Art Foley (Santa), Jennifer Donovan, and Steven Carpenter. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Art Foley (Santa) and Jennifer Donovan. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Laura Giannarelli did a masterful job of keeping to the play-within-a-play conceit. The sound design of Frank DiSalvo, Jr., along with Carpenter’s Live Sound Design was worth the price of admission. Effects included a leather strap to effect slaps, a tub of water for breaking ice, a miniature door for doors, and tin-cans (held by the actors to their mouths) for phones. I loved the faux commercials, including one for a Reeve’s Bakery on F Street, and a Woodward & Lothrop commercial, sung by the cast to the tune of “Frosty the Snowman,” with impressive vocal variety.

I loved Scenic Designer Carl F. Gudenius’ excellent set, which featured a brown-and-tan painted faux-tile floor, and a tan acoustic-board wall, graced with a bulletin board and WWII-era posters and other memorabilia. I adored Debbie Kennedy’s on-point costumes, including double-breasted suits and perfectly tailored dresses. The show lends itself to a recording, that could be sold separately, and enjoyed that way, it would truly be theater of the mind.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play plays all the right emotional strings. It certainly has earned its place as a new holiday tradition in the Nation’s Capitol. It’s the perfect show for families to see, and reflect on, this Christmas Season.

Running Time: Two hours, including a 10-minute intermission.

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It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play plays through December 18, 2016, at the Washington Stage Guild performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.

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