Theatre Reviews
The cast of "It's a Wonderful LifeL A Radio Play". Photo by Jon Gitchoff courtesy of the Rep

I’m going on the record and stating that even though my DVD of  “It’s a Wonderful Life” sits in all its black-and-white glory in a box with all of my other favorite holiday classics, only to be viewed during that hallowed holiday time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s – it’s not a Christmas story. There is no compelling reason – other than entertainment entropy – to reserve this heartwarming story of hope and optimism for the holiday season. Just because there’s a Christmas tree in a couple of scenes doesn’t make it a Christmas movie. Even the film’s director, Frank Capra, was quoted years later in the Wall Street Journal that he considered it an examination of “the individual’s belief in itself,” not a Christmas movie.

Add to this the notion set forth by Forbes writer Mark Hughes, who wrote in 2018, “’It's A Wonderful Life’ has attempted suicide, financial fraud, inequality, a man refusing to give a woman her clothes back after she accidentally loses them in public, child death, an adult beating a child as his ear bleeds, war deaths, and reinforcement of the notion the poor and working class should accept their lot in life and accept responsibility to pay off the unfortunate outcomes of financial graft and the banking system. Surely such things have no place in a Christmas movie, right?”

I offer this long-winded introduction to frame the reason why “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” adapted by Joe Landry and based on the story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, was a terrific choice by The Repertory Theater of St. Louis (The Rep) to replace last season’s humbuggery of a production of “A Christmas Carol.” This production glows with nostalgia, gleams with fine and often funny acting and glistens as a behind-the-scenes radio play. Landry’s use of the story-within-the-story approach recalls Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and the eight-hour-long play “Gatz,” a recreation of “The Great Gatsby,” which I’ve heard about but never seen.

The Rep’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” directed by Kate Bergstrom, effectively plucks the essential vignettes about its main character, George Bailey, and presents them, with some judicious reordering and truncation, word-for-word as we remember them from the movie – and some of the most fun was how the actors rephrased those old chestnuts. The brilliance then is not in the endearing material but in the engaging performances.

The open set effectively fills the Loretto Hilton’s stage and is a visual elegy for the golden age of live radio programming. With the talents of An-Lin Dauber (scenic and costumer designer), Christina Watanabe (lighting designer) and Anna Baranski and Emilee Bucheit (production stage managers), the set evoked a nostalgic – and analogue – 1940-ish radio station. The resurrected a personal forgotten memory of listening intently to the “CBS Radio Mystery Theater” through the tinny speaker of a handheld transistor radio, as well as that old notion of “watching the radio.”

Scripts in hand, the actors assume positions in front of numerous microphones and stations with the ingenious items and gadgets required to bring a radio play to aural life. As the play progresses, the coterie actors breezily move from station to station, performing their “main” characters as well as a host of smaller characters. It would be too complicated and lengthy to list all the double, triple and quadruple casting, but be assured all the movie favorites are portrayed, including Uncle Billy, the old man on the porch exhorting George to kiss Mary instead of “talking her to death,” Zuzu, Sam Wainwright and bad-girl Violet. As much fun as it was to watch the actors transition – often within the same scene – from multiple characters, it was also evident that the actors themselves were enjoying the opportunity to show off their acting chops.

“It’s A Wonder Life: A Live Radio Play” is successful as an ensemble effort. But this is still George Bailey’s story, and thus Michael James Reed, voicing that character, receives the (well-deserved) lion’s share of stage time. And it is Reed’s responsibility (and triumph) to deliver a convincing, emotionally satisfying, transformed George.

The rest of the cast is equally strong, even when voicing multiple parts, including: Eric Dean White as Freddie Filmore (voicing Joseph and others), Detante Bryant as Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (flexibly voicing the angel Clarence Oddbody, AS2 and others), Melissa Harlow as Sally Applewhite (voicing a terrific Mary Hatch Bailey), J. Samuel Davis as Dr. Richard Ross (voicing a uniquely different Mr. Potter, among others) and Aria Maholchic as Lana Sherwood (nimbly – and often amusingly – voicing Violet Bick and others). Delivering another stand-out performance and deserving his own mention is TJ Staten, Jr., who voiced the Lead Songbird and Sound Engineer.

Part of the joy of this production is being surprised by the cleverness – whether in the voicing or the visual and aural gags. So, no spoiler alerts, with this exception: look for an amusing local angle when the cast performs commercial breaks, just like in a real radio play. It was a nice touch and contributed to the humor woven throughout.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” and “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play” both provide a repeatable pleasure and joy. The message in both versions is one for all seasons and for all of us, whether religious and non-religious. And the radio play is a welcome opportunity to experience the timeless story in a format other than the tried-and-true film.

“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play” continues its run at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts through December 23 16. For more information, visit the Rep’s web site.

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