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Monday, 06 December 2010 17:59

The heartwarming charm of This Wonderful Life

Written by Emily Piro
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The heartwarming charm of This Wonderful Life

They don't have any eggnog or gingerbread...but Dramatic License Production's staging of This Wonderful Life serves the heartwarming charm you might be craving this holiday season. As you may guess, This Wonderful Life is a stage adaptation (written by Steve Murray, conceived by Mark Setlock) of a certain 1946 classic film bearing a similar title. If you're not a fan of the flick (nor a Jimmy Stewart enthusiast) this particular piece probably won't do it for you...but if you are an annual Frank Capra junkie, then this is a great new way to get your seasonal fix.

I was ready to snuggle into the mood right away in DLP's cozy little Chesterfield Mall storefront-turned-theater. A far cry from the glitzy hustle-bustle you might expect at a County mall, DLP has done a nice job of setting up simple-sweet holiday spirit. A full Christmas tree in the lobby, adorned with memorable moments from the film, reinforces both the seasonal and cinematic origins of the evening's events. Even the beverage table is bejeweled with bells of various shapes and sizes...just in case you fill up with so much yuletide joy you must immediately bequeath an angel its wings.

The theater space continues the holiday charm, with Christmas lights and wintery spirit sprinkled throughout a simple set designed by Ian Stoutenburgh. Nooks and crannies of a modest living room transform into all the hangouts (even the heavens) of Bedford Falls. And for you Grinches out there, rest assured – not a single teenage squeal from the mall sneaks into the humble space, so no need to fear any noise, noise, noise, noise!

There's nothing too fancy in this show. The world that director/actor Alan Knoll and the design team have created presents us with a Capra fanatic who has decorated up his little home in homage to the film. We find ourselves guests of this maybe-crazy-mostly-harmless fellow, who enthusiastically welcomes us into his one-man retelling of the adventures of George, Clarence, Mary, Mr. Potter, Zuzu, and so on, and so on... Knoll plays all forty plus citizens of Bedford Falls, plus narrator. It's like watching your hyper-fanatic 5-year-old nephew replay his favorite show, with room for some snarky Uncle Bob jabs at the more obvious plot holes from the film.

Knoll seems to have fun playing the snippy wisecracks as the narrator, but the real treat for the audience comes when Knoll slips and slides between characters and we get to see him dissolve into the great dialogue of the story we're here to see. The play attempts to balance between self-aware storytelling, and the classic film moments we love (with the vivacity of live theater). I could have done with less self-awareness, and was happy when more direct one-man-movie enactment emerged later in the show. You might think it would get tiring to see movie star impressions the whole evening; but Knoll has done fine work making tribute to all the iconic figures from the film. He does justice to each impersonation, while embodying a freshness and spirit that not many actors pull off well. My favorite was his take on the story's hero, George Bailey. Knoll especially snags the Jimmy Stewart spark, with a wistful twinkle in his eye as George dreams of bigger things beyond his little town.

Lights and sound are the only things that really blast theatricality. Such a close re-telling of a film kept my imagination strung between the suspended reality of the theater, and images of the movie playing out in my minds eye. Knoll and sound designer Bobby Miller have worked together to give just enough a taste of the sounds of Bedford Falls, so we can let ourselves get carried away – the Charleston can still bop, the angels can chat, and so forth. The lights (also by Stoutenburgh) seemed a bit contrived and overly theatrical for such a simple production, and I would have liked for them to be more subtle so I could really wrap up in Knoll's storytelling. As charming as the Chesterfield space is, their technical capabilities seem restricted. Props and set dressing by Peggy Knock and Kim Furlow are spot on and add great details. The costume (also Furlow) is nicely understated, allowing Knoll to transform between characters while evoking a subtle 1940's feel.

Dramatic License Production is offering a nice holiday package with this show. You can do some gift browsing at the mall, and soak up a little seasonal culture all in one family-friendly destination! For some extra cheer, on Fridays you can stick around and chat with Knoll after the show.

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