Review: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life a Live Radio Play’ at the Laurel Mill Playhouse

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It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic. One we want to see every holiday season. Growing up, it was a household staple for us even though we were Jewish. The theme, the importance of kindness, the meaning of family and true love, has universal appeal. The idea that our life is without meaning is explored by the protagonist, George Bailey. The villain of the play is Mr. Potter, truly the Grinch who tries to steal more than just Christmas and represents the evils that lurk in world of big financial companies. That idea is still very pertinent in America today. Will big business win or will the common man? Can the common man even stand a chance in winning, and how can he win? These questions are answered in the in a similar way in 1946 as they would be in 2017.

The difference in this version is it is done as a radio play. A radio play version of It’s a Wonderful Life went on the air about the time of the movie release. That was common before television became so important in our lives. This version, adapted by Joe Landry, was done in 1997. Director John D’Amato decided to keep the play in period, as is traditional when doing this radio version. This helps lead to the charm of the show. It is not just a radio show but a radio play within a play. The real-life actors play radio actors from the 1940’s who then play various roles in the radio play. We get to see the sound effects, the stage manager, and in this version a group of singers who do commercials and Christmas music during intermission.

D’Amato, as Eddie Jolson, along with the Announcer, Freddie Filmore (John Cusumano) and the self-important 1940’s star Jack Burns who plays Potter (John Dignam) come out early to do a pre-show before the real play starts. The pre-show is a lot of fun, and I encourage you to come early to be a part of it all.

This is an ensemble piece. Many of the radio actors have several roles. The only person to play just one role is Jack Laurents (Christopher Carothers) who reads the iconic George Bailey. Carothers makes a very likeable George. He is up to this pivotal role.

Others standouts are Miranda Snyder whose performances are always a plus to any production. She plays Lana Sherwood the flirtatious young actress who portrays Violet and others. It is what she does when she sits that is the real highlight of her performance.

Dignam, as the egotistical aging Burns, is another interesting character to watch when he is off-mic as well as when he is Mr. Potter and others.

Gareth Swing and Sabrina Swing play the children in the show and do a great job creating new voices for each of their characters. Sabrina Swing is the young performer, Regina Perry, who sits bored until her roles come up, creating some wool design. Her Zuzu is very adorable.  Gareth Swing as Bobby Cagney fidgets until he has to go to the mic. A special nod to both for being so cute without being distracting when they are not speaking and for staying in character while on stage for so long.

Penni Barnett plays Sally Applewhite who in turn is Mary Baily. This was an interesting cast choice because Mary is almost always played by an ingenue and Applewhite is, we are told, a beauty contest winner. Barnett, as Applewhite, is definitely not an ingenue. That was done very often during radio. The person performing on radio looked nothing like their character. Barnett makes a very young and sweet Mary come to life.

Terri Laurino plays Henrietta “Jazzbo” Heyward as Clarrisa the angel trying to earn her wings. Laurino has the unenviable role where she stands at the mic in much of the first act with not much dialogue as George’s life is told to her by Ella Vaughn (Katie Estep) as Josephina. However, Laurino gets a chance to fly in the role of lovable angel who helps George after intermission.

The rest of the cast does a fine job with Cusumano as the Announcer, Martini, and also as Bill Bailey; Jonathan Jorgenson as actor Sandy Drysdale as Harry Bailey, Nick Bert, and Mr. Welsh; Nick Russo as Silvio Benedetto as Charlie, Cop, Horace, etc.; Munro Meyersburg as Greg Kolb as Peter Bailey, Old Man Gower, etc.; and Estep as the narrating angel.

The live sound effects were perfectly executed by Kristin Bloom as Sara Fitzgerald and Michele Swing as Dinah Mills. Shawn Fournier is fine as the Stage Manager both on and off stage. Patrick Pease plays the background music and accompanies three wonderful singers, Kaylee Bloom, Shayna Bloom and Tracy Davidson.

D’Amato designed the set as well. It is crafted nicely to portray a radio station of the 1940’s era. Marge McGugan’s costume design was original, bright, and delightfully retro. All the costumes looked like they were made for the actors.

Everyone needs to see It’s a Wonderful Life at least once. This production should be your number one choice this year.

Running Time: One Hours and 40 minutes with an Intermission.

It’s a Wonderful Life plays through Sunday, December 17, 2017 at Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 617-9906, or purchase them online.