Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a delightfully entertaining show. Written by Joe Landry based on the Frank Capra film and directed by Donald Hicken, it is sure to get folks into the holiday spirit. Set at a New York radio station during the 1940s on Christmas Eve, the play goes behind the scenes to show what goes on to put on a broadcast of It’s A Wonderful Life. With authentic-looking costumes, sound effect props, and even some commercial jingles, the audience feels like they’re transported back in time.
The cast enchants from the moment they step onstage. Lana Sherwood (played by Annapolis Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Sally Boyett) is the first to enter, staggering under a huge load of wrapped Christmas presents. She engages with the audience, easing them into the time period. She banters with the other performers, coming across as a fun-loving young woman. She has several roles on the radio show, most notably Violet, Rose Bailey, and Zuzu. Her portrayal of Violet is particularly well done, revealing her to be a warm, carefree woman. She has an especially tender moment talking about her dreams, where her yearning shines through. She is also impressive as the daughter Zuzu, sounding just like a little girl, and capturing her innocence and love. She gives a wonderfully heartwarming feel to the famous line “Look Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
Evan Casey plays the character of Jake Laurents and George Bailey, channeling James Cagney for his performance. He fills the well-known speeches with all their power and passion, and they stuck with me long after the show was over. One of his most powerful moments was defending his father’s character, the outrage and moral clarity coming across clear in his voice.
As he reaches his low point, his desperation and despair become evident, getting on his knees to beg fervently. He even infused the little moments with energy, snapping at his wife and children while depressed, or speaking with his mother on the porch. Watching him try to do the right thing, often against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and powerful temptations, is an inspiring sight.
Jamison Foreman plays Harry Heywood (also called “Jazzbo”), Harry Bailey, Clarence, and several other characters. He gave a restrained performance as Harry, the love for his brother shining through. As Martini, he has a strong Italian accent, and a lively exuberance, which gets many laughs from the audience. Clarence is probably his strongest performance, rather quiet and direct, but eager to show George the impact he’s made on so many people’s lives. His sincerity perfectly balances George’s disbelief, making them a fun couple to watch. He provides George with one of the funniest lines: “Have a couple drinks with me and we’ll both be flying.” Clarence’s voice rises in excitement when he realizes how he can show George that his life matters, and his sympathy for this man comes across powerfully as he observes George’s life unfold. He is a charming, friendly angel hoping to make a difference.
Rob McQuay served as the Announcer Freddie Filmore, leading the cast through the script, as well as Clarence’s Narrator, Potter, and George’s Uncle Billy. He was impressively villainous as Potter, with a perpetual scowl on his face, and a sleazy, sinister tone in his voice. In one scene, trying to tempt George, he circles around the younger man, like a shark with its prey.
McQuay’s Uncle Billy is much more pleasant and joyous, although somewhat easily flustered. During a party, having drunk too much, he wheels around the stage in pleasure, until George catches him and sends him in the right direction. In the dramatic scenes, he brings just the right amount of agitation and fear to the situation. There are several conversations between Potter, Billy, and Peter Bailey, and it is impressive to watch McQuay switch between the very different characters with ease. He has a talented range.
Olivia Ercolano plays Sally Applewhite and Mary with sweetness and warmth, but with a little kick too, to match George’s wit. Ercolano and Casey have great chemistry together, and it is wonderful watching their characters grow closer. She plays the steadfast, loving wife, leaning into George as he struggles with his responsibilities. She gives a touching performance.
Sandra Spence’s outfits feel authentic to the era, and help reflect each character’s personality. Lana wears a dark red dress with a fox stole around her neck, looking fashionable and vibrant. Jake has a black suit and tie, giving a youthful, conservative feel. Sally wears a sparkly blue dress, beautiful and innocent. Harry has a grey and white checkered suit, looking dashing. Freddie wears a red bowtie and a blue and white striped suit, giving him a fashionable look.
J.D. Madsen’s set looks like an old-time radio station, complete with “On Air” and “Applause” signs. There are also working props for sound effects, including an upright xylophone, a wash basin, and a hanging piece of sheet metal. Upright mikes at the front of the stage complete the scene.
Adam Mendelson’s Lighting Design makes the dramatic scenes darker and emphasizes different parts of the stage.
Veteran Director Donald Hicken works his magic. The actors use the entire stage, and work well together. Their descriptions are so evocative, I could almost see Bedford Falls. The sound effects helped to complete the illusion. Everything comes together for a touching, funny feel-good performance
Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s joyous It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is the perfect show to welcome in the holidays.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play plays through December 24, 2016, at Annapolis Shakespeare Company – 111 Chinquapin Round Road, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.