It has been a tradition in my household to start decorating for Christmas on the day after Thanksgiving. My wife likes to put ornaments on the tree to the sound of Christmas music. She also loves classic Christmas movies like Miracle on 34th Street and, especially, It’s a Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra classic that starred Jimmy Stewart as George Baily, a self-sacrificing, wonder of a man. You could call him a secular saint, who does the right thing because it is right, who marries his sweetheart, and keeps hope alive in his small town of Bedford Falls by running the Building and Loan he reluctantly inherited from his father. He had dreams of travel and college, of doing big things in the world, but put them aside, with some regret, for the greater good.
An American everyman, George worked hard to create a good life for his family and his community, but on Christmas Eve a financial disaster hit him so hard that, fueled buy alcohol, he teeters at the edge of a bridge ready to end his life. But Heaven has sent an emissary to intervene, Angel Second Class Clarence, who shows him what life would have been like if he had never been born.
The film didn’t do so well at the box office in 1947, but has since been given the highest accolades. In March of 1947, a radio production of It’s a Wonderful Life was broadcast to the nation featuring the original cast. Since then, the show, adapted for the stage, has been produced many, many times.
Theatre West mounts the show as a fundraiser for the company and features a cast of excellent voice actors, many of whom play multiple roles. The set is a barebones mock up of a broadcast studio, with stand-up microphones and a sign above the stage that flashes “applaud” to prompt a studio audience. With books in hand, the actors perform with gusto, aided by amusing sound effects (Jill Jones foley master)—footsteps, creaking doors, tinkling bells, a squeaky wheel chair, and more. With considerable charisma, Tatum Shank leads the show as George Bailey. He owns the role, employing just a soupçon of the famous Stewart enthusiasm. As Clarence, the angel, Sara Shearer, is loveable. A show needs a villain and Don Moore as the sneering, greedy Mr. Potter is terrific, as are James J. Cox as the hapless Uncle Billy and druggist Mr. Gower, and Bonnie Kalisher as Cousin Tilly and the Bartender. Loida Navas is endearing as George’s wife Mary. Rounding out the cast are Bill Sehres as Pop Baily and Mr. Martini; Philip Sokoloff as Ernie, the Cab Driver and Mr. Welch; and Tammy Taylor as Ma Baily and the Lawyer. All the actors take on ensemble roles. Maria Kress as the announcer fills the theatre with infectious enthusiasm.
I almost forgot to say that I really enjoyed this show. I left the theatre with a smile.
It’s a Wonderful Life is written, adapted and directed by Matt Johnson and produced for Theatre West by George Tovar. Paul Cady provides the accompaniment and musical arrangement; lighting is by Yancy Dunham; sound design by Austin Quan, and sound/mics by Col. Darryl Harrelson.
It’s a Wonderful Life, A Theatre West On The Air Players Radio Drama Production, plays Friday and Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2pm on December 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, in Los Angeles.