It’s a Wonderful Life, A Radio Play

Adapting a classic movie for the stage is normally a reversal of sorts. To adapt a beloved Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, as a “radio play” is unique and presents fascinating possibilities. The setting is a radio studio complete with sound effects, live microphones and a real piano player for the background music.

Director Joe Brady has made a puzzling choice in his staging of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Radio Play. Rather than playing it “straight” – as though it were a radio production put on stage for the audience to see what it was really like to produce a play purely for radio listeners, Landry has chosen to mix his mediums. Yes, it is set up as a radio play but the “actors” acting the different voices really occupy the roles as though they were in a live theatre production. I am not sure it was a wise choice.

At the outset, we are treated as though we are the audience for a live radio broadcast. The actors are introduced and everything is set up as though we are to witness the production of a live radio play. But then real props start being used, characters kiss like they really mean it and the “play” is, in fact, very much staged as a live theatrical production.

Wonderful Life at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

The cast of It’s a Wonderful Life, a Radio Play (Photo: Joe Williams)

The possibilities for having a play within a play are missed altogether. The actors could have had invented personas which they revert back to whenever they are not on microphone and some interesting byplay could be invented by keeping the worlds separate and distinct. Instead the lines between naturalistic acting and radio portrayal are blurred to the point of losing the character of a true radio play.

I think I understand Brady’s decision. I’m guessing he wanted to stay faithful to the story and maximize the schmaltz impact of this well-beloved Christmas classic. To a great extent, it works. You do find yourself getting caught up in the story, really caring for George and Mary and being genuinely moved by the happily ever after ending.

But it wasn’t a “real” radio play and isn’t that the point? For instance, aren’t the sound effects supposed to play a big part, perhaps even be featured from time to time? Here, the actors take turns working the sound effects and, quite frankly, they fall flat. Very little attempt is made to make them really authentic and effective and they become more of a distraction than anything else.

Recommended
It’s a Wonderful Life
Closes December 30, 2012
Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET)
31 W Patrick St
Frederick, Md.
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $16 – $25
Fridays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets

The play does have some very nice moments. Matt Kline playing the actor who voices George does so sincerely and convincingly. Courtney McLaughlin saunters on stage at the beginning introduced as the fictional actress, Miss Sally Applewhite. She gives every indication that she might be a spoiled Diva but once the “action” begins, she plays Mary straight both on mike and off. McLaughlin makes for a very credible ingénue but she could have been so much more interesting.

The remainder of the cast has great fun with multiple roles. Rich Cole, John D’Amato, Harry Heywood and Laura Stark move in and out of a variety of characters on a moment’s notice and without missing a beat. Ms. Stark is particularly effective at working with accents and characterizations in a way that has each part quite distinct and believable.

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but a radio play is all about the sound, the voices and the effects that conjure up images that would be impossible to stage. We don’t get that here. Instead we are served a kind of warmed up, jumbled up mish mash that can’t quite decide whether it is radio or theatre. Heart-warming, yes, but it’s tough to miss on that with this material. Innovative and interesting, not so much.

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It’s a Wonderful Life, A Radio Play . By Joe Landry . Directed by Joe Brady . Featuring Rich Cole (Ensemble), John D’Amato (Ensemble), Mike Fox (Ensemble), Matt Kline (George), Courtney McLaughlin (Mary) & Laura Stark (Ensemble) .  Production Team: Mak Nichols (Stage Manager), Bethanie Herman (Assistant Stage Manager), Geoffy Huntoon (Musical Coach), Doug Grove (Lighting Design), Julie Herber (Costume Design), Ali Duvall (Scenic Design), Jeanine Collins (Properties). Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theatre . Reviewed by Larry Bangs

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