Sometimes Christmas can seem like a rerun of itself: if you like ballet, you see The Nutcracker each year. Melodrama? Ah, that’s always Dickens’ Christmas Carol. If your taste runs to cartoons? The Grinch, of course. And if each you want to see the quintessential Christmas movie, it must be none other than Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life.
But oh dear. That’s memorized by now, frame by frame. Sure wish we could go see it again, all fresh and sparkly new to our eyes. Where to go?
Have no fears – Capra’s vision is closer than you think. Just put on your coat and muffler and head on out to Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, and you’ll find a lovingly recreated Bedford Falls, complete with lighted street lamps and colored Edison bulbs. This musical revamp of the holiday classic features an original score by David Nehls, along with a live orchestra and a large and engaging cast.
Toby’s is such a happy place to go- no wonder you see whole families there, from grandparents down to the grandkids. For one thing, the show starts even before the performance starts, as many of the cast cheerfully double as waiters; it’s quite humbling to have Mr. Potter ask you if you’d like more coffee! (and, hmm, should you even tip Mr Potter? After all, he does wheel away with $8,000 of the Savings and Loans’ money every night.
Speaking of Mr Potter, a shoutout should go to Robert Biederman 125, who plays him. Mr Biederman also performs an amazing warmup each evening before the show, announcing anniversaries and birthdays with a wink and an invisible rimshot. He’s a delight to watch, a Borscht Belt natural who knows how to cajole an audience into a good mood.
The play opens in Heaven – in Toby’s version, a tiny whitewashed space abovestairs, with a white desk, chair, and telephone- apparently, even in Heaven there’s office furniture. David Bosley-Reynolds as Joseph is a nicely commanding presence with a grand singing voice, though we do wish someone in the costume shop would fix the poor fellow’s wings from constantly sliding down and garroting him. As Clarence the Angel, David James is a happy little sprite, and his “Ya Gotta Have Wings” in act 2 was one of the highlights of the show.
Both Mary (Katie Keyser) and George Bailey (Matthew Schleigh) are eminently likeable, and though you already know the eventual outcome, you do find yourself rooting for George, particularly when evil Mr. Potter is doing his dirtiest tricks. (8,000 of them, to be exact, and it should be mentioned that Biederman 125, as bad guy Potter, had more than a few boos from the audience at curtain call).
There were some surprisingly touching moments in the show, including a graveyard scene with George Bailey and his mother (Lynne Sigler) and Zuzu’s petals scene, with Liliana Robinson as young Zuzu.
There are some standouts in the ensemble as well- the best dance number in the show has Marykate Broulliet as Violet performing an upbeat “Syncopation Rag” with the ensemble, and “The Honky Tonk”, again with the ensemble, is a boozy vision of what Bedford Falls would be like without George.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
November 20 – January 10
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
5900 Symphony Woods Road
Columbia, MD 21044
Show running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $55 – $60
Wednesdays thru Sundays
There are one or two downsides to the show, most notably that the simple music and lyrics by David Nehls are regrettably unremarkable and almost instantly forgettable: the songs are by no means terrible, but they aren’t Broadway quality, either. Choreography by Tina Marie DeSimone likewise made little effort to overcome the music’s shortcomings, though nondance staging was well done, particularly given the small stage and large cast.
But those are small issues, and easily overlooked given Toby’s otherwise fine production values. For one thing, consider the live orchestra, (musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings) hidden from view but there all the same, rather than a prerecorded accompaniment. Kudos to Toby’s for continuing this tradition. Costumes by Samn Huffer were well done, covering a range of the 1920s to the mid 1940s, with some seamless transitions. Lighting by Colleen M Foley was atmospheric- see the lighted lamp posts mentioned earlier- with some nice Currier and Ives projections of idyllic winter villages. Set by David A. Hopkins deserves a special notice, for the sheer economy of use, turning bar tables into tombstones, a wedding banquet into a child’s bed, and a bridge- a bridge, folks! and with an elevator, even! – above all of it to remind us of the balance of life and death. Nice job.
So think of Toby’s original adaptation of what is probably your favorite holiday film as the perfect chance to re-visit Bedford Falls for Christmas.
It’s a Wonderful Life – The Musical . Book and Adaptation: Michael Tilford . Music and Lyrics: David Nehls . Directors: Toby Orenstein and Tina Marie DeSimone . Cast: David Bosley-Reynolds as Joseph, David James as Clarence, Andrew Horn as Uncle Billy, Robert Biederman 125 as Mr. Potter, Matthew Schleigh as George Bailey, Katie Keyser as Mary. Ensemble and Townsfolk: Shawn Kettering, Samn Huffer, Jeremy Scott Blaustein; Lawrence B. Munsey; Jeffrey Shankle; Julia Lancione; CobyKay Callhan; Heather Marie Beck; Susan Thornton; Darren McDonnel, Tina Marie DeSimone; Justin Calhoun; Lynne Sigler; MaryKate Brouillet; N Children (A and B casts): Carolyn Otchelt, Samantha Bloom Yakaitis, Jace Franceo, Gavin Willard, Sophie Crossland, Liliana Robinson . Choreography: Tina Marie DeSimone . Costumes: Samn Huffer . Scenic Design: David A Hopkins . Lighting Design: Colleen Foley . Sound Design: Mark Smedley . Musical Direction: Ross Scott Rawlings . Stage Manager: Cree Menefree, Kate Wackerie Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.