Review: ‘This Wonderful Life’ at Act II Playhouse

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“Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” For so many, the holiday season just isn’t complete without the images of Jimmy Stewart running through the streets of Bedford Falls bidding an elated Merry Christmas to anyone and anything that crosses his path. For fans of the classic Frank Capra film, Act II Playhouse’s This Wonderful Life will add a new spark to this annual Christmas staple.

Tony Braithwaite. Photo by Mark Garvin.

In this adaptation, Steve Murray reimagines the indelible plot and characters of It’s a Wonderful Life for one actor, in this case, Act II Playhouse Artistic Director and local favorite Tony Braithwaite. Along with the role of director for the production, Braithwaite takes to the stage to conquer each of the many characters and circumstances in 80 minutes of pure fast-paced fun. This version is a mixture of a narrative retelling and a comical reenactment with Braithwaite in every role.

This Wonderful Life condenses Frank Capra’s famous parable of George Bailey, a small-town average man, who falls on hard times and gets to see what life would be like if he never were born with the help of an angel named Clarence. Murray further flavors the adaptation with a few moments of an outside view of the original film, like pointing out on-set foibles that made it into the final cut of the movie, or poking fun at George and Mary’s kissing style and other “of the time” eccentricities in the central love story. Make no mistake, this is an evening intended for lovers of the film, not a substitute for a first viewing, as many of the jokes hinge on a familiarity and love of these characters.

Tony Braithwaite. Photo by Mark Garvin.

According to every important list out there, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the greatest films ever made, which begs the question, what does a one-man retelling add to its already legendary status? The answer lies in Tony Braithwaite’s irresistible charm. His boyish smile and priceless timing put the audience immediately in the palm of his hand. The only impression better than his George Bailey is his evil Mr. Potter, and those scenes where this idealistic protagonist and  greedy antagonist square off are truly a wonder to behold. Flipping quickly between voices and physicalities, Braithwaite takes a high-energy tour of Bedford Falls that is far more exciting than black and white.

Colin McIlvane’s simple set becomes a variety of settings in a sparse version of each scene, beginning with a quaint front porch, a Christmas tree, and a few stools. In turn, the constant action shifts these elements into the high school gymnasium, the Bailey Building and Loan, the fateful bridge where George’s life hangs in the balance, and so many more. Each evocative bit of theater magic is complete with help from Lighting Designer Andy Shaw and Sound Designer/Composer John Stovicek, adding the extra voiceovers where necessary and the faint flicker of the distant angels as they watch over their subject’s life story. Costume Designer Courtney Boches fits Braithwaite in a neutral yet fetching grey suit for a familiar and festive taste of yesteryear.

As a barebones reimagining of Frank Capra’s film, This Wonderful Life is a modern tribute to a cinematic great with all of the memories and warmth one could hope for, and the added skillful comedic carousel of impressions from Tony Braithwaite. With a contemporary eye to this classic of the Christmas canon, the moments of theatrical magic are sure to dazzle while delivering the familiar tear to the eye as Clarence is finally granted his wings.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

This Wonderful Life plays through December 24, 2016 at Act II Playhouse – 56 East Butler Avenue, in Ambler, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 654-0200, or purchase them online.