I am usually a strict adherent to the “No Christmas till after Thanksgiving” edict, but I am happy I broke my own rule and started my holiday season a little early with Washington Stage Guild.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play transports us back to Christmas Eve, 1946; we are to be the live studio audience for a performance of a radio play based on a Frank Capra film that was not yet a seasonal classic: It’s a Wonderful Life.
Before the “broadcast” officially begins, we see the sound-man, Art Foley (Steven Carpenter), prepare the odds and ends he will use to create the sound effects heard throughout the radio show and watch the actors wander into the studio and get ready (some even saying hello to their audience) until our host Freddie Filmore (Vincent Clark) begins to warm up the audience, introducing the actors before they go “on the air.”
What happens next is a loving tribute to both old-time radio theatre and the beloved classic film. Actors Jake Laurents (Joe Brack), Sally Applewhite (Jenny Donovan), Lana Sherwood (Julie-Ann Elliott) and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Lawrence Redmond) join Freddie Filmore to voice all the many characters of It’s a Wonderful Life, from the charming hero George Bailey to the evil Mr. Potter to Angel, Second-Class, Clarence Odbody.
The sounds of slamming doors, whooshing winds, and clanging cash registers are created onstage by Art Foley to help the listening audience “see” the many different locations in the little town of Bedford Falls.
The concept of this adaptation is a wonderful device; not only is it fun and fascinating in its own right (fans of WAMU’s “The Big Broadcast” will be delighted) but it also prevents the audience from feeling the need to make comparisons to the film. The actors pull off the difficult tasks of playing multiple characters without the aid of costumes, sets or even much movement with apparent ease.
Especially impressive are the scenes when Vincent Clark, playing both Mr. Potter and George’s doddering Uncle Billy, performs several scenes between those two characters all by himself. Both Julie-Ann Elliott and Lawrence Redmond excel in playing a variety of very different characters; Elliott plays town sex-pot Violet Bick, George’s loving Mother, and his young daughter Zuzu while Redmond plays Clarence the Angel, war-hero Harry Bailey, and Bert the cop.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A Live Radio Play
EXTENDED! November 12 – December 20
Washington Stage Guild
at Undercroft Theatre
900 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20001
1 hour, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $50 (students half price)
Perhaps most enjoyable is the lovely chemistry between Joe Brack and Jenny Donovan when they are playing George and Mary; from the childhood scene in which Mary whispers into George’s bad ear that she loves him to the joyous climax when George realizes how wonderful his life truly is, Brack and Donovan are utterly charming.
The design team should be congratulated for creating a picture perfect 1940s radio studio; Carl F. Gudenius’s set is full of beautiful period details, and Debbie Kennedy’s costumes transport us back to a day when people dressed to impress. Perhaps most impressive was the sound design by Steven Carpenter and Frank Disalvo, Jr.; the combination of live and pre-recorded sound effects was seamless and effective.
Ultimately, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play hits all the right notes (I cried in all the same places I usually cry during It’s a Wonderful Life!) and is the perfect way to kick off the Christmas Season with a shot of heartfelt nostalgia.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play adapted by Joe Landry. Directed by Laura Giannarelli. Featuring Vincent Clark, Joe Brack, Jenny Donavan, Julie-Ann Elliott, Lawrence Redmond, and Steven Carpenter. Set Design: Carl F. Gudenius. Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows. Sound Design: Frank DiSalvo, Jr. Costume Design: Debbie Kennedy. Live Sound Design: Steven Carpenter. Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie. Assistant Stage Manger: Tricia McCauley. Produced by Washington Stage Guild. Reviewed by Jessica Pearson.