Review: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ at Prince William Little Theatre

Prince William Little Theatre’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, directed by Caroline Scarborough, presents the well-known story of George Bailey (Michael Clendenin) discovering how important he is to so many people, with the help of his guardian angel, Clarence (Andrew Morin), but in a completely different way: the story is told as a 1946 radio drama with a Foley artist (Matthew Scarborough) creating most of the sound effects.

L-R: Don Wilson, Ellen Woodstock, Tashina Harris, Tristan Cooper, Michael Clendenin, Matthew Scarborough, Kelsey Lane, Rebekah Raze, Eileen Marshall, and Andrew Morin in It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, presented by Prince William Little Theatre. Photo courtesy of Prince William Little Theatre.
L-R: Don Wilson, Ellen Woodstock, Tashina Harris, Tristan Cooper, Michael Clendenin, Matthew Scarborough, Kelsey Lane, Rebekah Raze, Eileen Marshall, and Andrew Morin in It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, presented by Prince William Little Theatre. Photo courtesy of Prince William Little Theatre.

With a traditional radio play, the only emphasis is the sound transmitted over the airwaves. What makes this show so fun to watch is it is visually exciting. There are many wonderful details in the fully functioning set (Nicholas Mastrangelo), like a flashing audience applause sign and gorgeous 1940s-style microphones. Costumes (Michelle Macdonald) and various props and set dressing (Natalie Foley) further enhance the 1940s theme. Director Caroline Scarborough wears multiple hats in this production, as she is also responsible for hair and makeup, both done gorgeously and with great expertise.

It is difficult to play one role in a show and it can be harder to play several roles, but it is incredibly challenging to play several roles, all while pretending to be an actor pretending to play those roles, which every person in the cast did with seeming ease. (Confused? Michael Clendenin actually plays Jake Laurents, an actor playing George Bailey.)

Prior to the show, Sally Applewhite (Brianna Williamson) comes onstage and through interactions with other actors wandering through the set, it is determined that this is Sally’s first day at the radio station and that she is playing the role of Mary Hatch. The play officially begins with Freddie Filmore (Tristan Cooper), encouraging the audience to interact loudly (through applause, gasps, and anything else that would help “the audience at home” to enjoy the broadcast). From there, the 10-person cast takes on the task of building an entire town of people with different voices and mannerisms.

Clendenin and Williamson both have great voice qualities that play particularly well as the two lead actors playing the roles of George and Mary, while their physical acting during breaks was very enjoyable to watch–Clendenin as the seasoned veteran of radio and Williamson as the new and somewhat nervous young radio starlet.

Cooper is genuinely fun to watch. Prior to the show, he moseys around, introducing himself to people and schmoozing. Throughout the first half of the play, his interactions with maneater Lana Sherwood (Rebekah Raze) are truly a delight.

Raze’s Violet Bick is a great contrast to Williamson’s Mary Hatch. Raze plays Violet somewhere between bubbly and sultry, with a practically velvet-smooth voice.

Willy Kurtz (Don Wilson) is the actor who plays Potter and Gower. Willy Kurtz is clearly a sweet and kindly man, which makes watching Wilson play him, play Potter, a mean-spirited and miserly villain, such a treat.

Marjorie Applebee (Ellen Woodstock) is great as Rose Bailey, but I think her best work was using some of the funniest different voices to differentiate characters. Another person who particularly excels at the challenge of playing incredibly different roles with extremely different voices is Tashina Harris, playing Hazel Jenkins. Woodstock and Harris as Bert and Ernie (no, not that Bert and Ernie), were my favorite part of the play, by far.

Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Andrew Morin) hams it up as Clarence and a variety of other players. He has a box of hats and props he uses to change characters onstage, sometimes with very little turnaround.

Trixie Devine (Kelsey Lane) and Hope Merriweather (Eileen Marshall) round out the cast. Lane’s young George Bailey is sincere and kind without being saccharine sweet. Lane probably has the best “away from the microphone” persona, which was best seen when interacting with Cooper. Marshall’s Zuzu is ridiculously cute. Her voice, particularly when “sick,” is spot on; it’s really what performing a radio play is all about.

My only complaint is a small one–I really wish I could have seen Matthew Scarborough creating sounds as the Foley artist a little better, because from what I did see, he is doing great work.

In addition to telling the story of It’s a Wonderful Life, there were a few commercial breaks inserted into the action, each ending in a jingle performed by most of the cast. Matthew Scarborough was also the cast’s vocal coach and arranged the musical numbers. The different parts of the songs were balanced and blended well.

Get your tickets ahead of time! This show has a very limited run and tickets are selling fast!

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, presented by Prince William Little Theatre, plays through December 16, 2018, at Hylton Performing Arts Center located at 10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA. Tickets are available at the door or online.