Review: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ at Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3

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Is seeing a Christmas show in November too early for you? When I went to see this show during the first week of November, I couldn’t help thinking of the scene in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving where Sally protests that she’s not ready for Thanksgiving yet because “I haven’t even finished eating all of my Halloween candy!”

Josh Totora, Michael Toner, Jessica Johnson, Tabitha J. Allen, and Damon Bonetti. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Josh Totora, Michael Toner, Jessica Johnson, Tabitha J. Allen, and Damon Bonetti. Photo by Mark Garvin.

So if you’re not ready to sit in a room decorated with strings of Christmas tree lights, I understand. And if you’re not ready to hear a jolly group of actors sing a playful, jazzy version of “Deck the Halls,” I understand. And if you’re not ready to see that cast reenact one of the most famous (and overly familiar) Christmas movies ever, I understand. But when you’re done watching the new show at the Walnut Street’s Independence Studio, you’ll probably be in such a great mood that you’ll wish you’d seen it even earlier.

The show is It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. And as the complete title suggests, we’re not seeing a full-blown version of the Frank Capra classic. The conceit here is that it’s December 1946 – the same month the movie was released – and we’re in a New York radio studio seeing a troupe of actors performing their version of the movie. And in the spirit of old time radio, these five actors do it all: they play all the roles, and they create all the sound effects before our eyes (a bag of corn flakes, a bucket of water, and a toilet plunger combine to create the sound of George Bailey’s little brother falling into an icy lake). They also perform the score live (playing piano, guitar, drums, and even vibraphone). The cast even stops the story a few times to do vintage-style commercials for fictitious products. It all adds extra levels of fun to the show.

Michael Toner. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Michael Toner. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Joe Landry’s script makes minimal changes to the story of George Bailey, the man who struggles to escape his humdrum small town but ends up learning, with the help of a heavenly visitor, that “No man is a failure who has friends.” Those who have watched the movie dozens of times – like me – will recognize what’s been cut (the dance at the gym) and what’s been added (a late complication involving a bank examiner that doesn’t really go anywhere). Landry’s script succeeds largely by quoting large swaths of one of the most quotable Hollywood screenplays ever. (That screenplay is uncredited in the Playbill; for the record, it’s by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling, based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern.)

Mind you, unlike the movie, this radio version of the story is far from foolproof. I saw a production of this show nearly a decade ago that was so stiff and corny that it didn’t work at all. But Director Jesse Bernstein circumvents those problems by creating a cozy, intimate atmosphere that draws the viewer in to the story. And the design elements add to the nostalgia factor. That includes Scott Groh’s scenic design, with its vintage recording equipment, art deco light fixtures and oriental rugs; Shon Causer’s lighting, which dims appropriately for George first romantic encounter with his future wife Mary at the old Granville house; and Rebecca Dwight’s costumes, which provide slick 1940s elegance for the romantic leads and character-building layers for the supporting cast.

And the cast is up to the show’s many challenges. Damon Bonetti is noble and sympathetic as George; like Jimmy Stewart, he has the power to bring a lump to the throat. Tabitha J. Allen gives Mary the right levels of sweetness and gumption, while the supporting cast jumps from voice to voice with zeal. Jessica Johnson is sassy as good-time girl Violet; Josh Totora (who is also the Musical Director) is stooped and crochety as mean old Mr. Potter; and Michael Toner brings a scratchy throat to Uncle Billy and a twinkle to Clarence the Angel. It’s hard work, but they make it all seem like a breeze.

In the wrong hands, this show could have been, in the words of Mr. Potter, “Sentimental hogwash!” Thank goodness it’s in the hands of Bernstein and his crew, who have given it just the right combination of warmth, heart, and merriment.

Running time: 90 minutes, with an intermission.

Damon Bonetti, Jessica Johnson, and Tabitha J. Allen. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Damon Bonetti, Jessica Johnson, and Tabitha J. Allen. Photo by Mark Garvin.

It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play plays through Sunday, December 17, 2017 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3 – 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550, or purchase them online.