PATRIOT LEDGER – When Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” first appeared on the big screen in 1946, the most popular medium for home entertainment was commercial broadcast radio. The film’s stars, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, even reprised their roles for live radio broadcasts twice in 1947 and once in 1951.
Now, the Americana Theatre Company’s presentation of “It’s a Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play” allows us to enjoy this Christmas classic about the struggles of George Bailey and the Bailey Building and Loan Company while also recreating Christmas Eve, 1946 at Studio A of the fictitious radio station, WPLY in Plymouth. It helps us remember a time when families gathered in the living room to hear Hollywood’s biggest stars lend their voices, talent and appeal to live radio plays presented on shows like the Lux Radio Theater on NBC, the Academy Award Theater on CBS, and many others.
At the cozy Plymouth Center for the Arts, Americana recreates the look and feel of a live radio broadcast, including “On Air” and “Applause” signs, a realistic looking engineer’s booth, some delightfully corny live commercials for “Dux” soap cakes, and a few shamelessly funny plugs for Martini’s, a real Plymouth Bar and Grill and show sponsor that also finds its way into the plot. Johan Woods plays the ever present “Foley Artist” or sound effects man. He has a sound for every footstep, closed door, glass break and thunder clap. It’s quite realistic, and the nifty way he interacts with the other cast members when they are off mic, helps establish a feeling of ease and confidence, while giving us the insight of seeing what happens behind the scenes.
We are treated like a real studio audience and asked to respond accordingly with applause, laughs and sing-a-longs. As announcer Freddie Filmore (David Friday) introduces each star just prior to “air time,” the excitement builds and it feels like we are in the presence of movie stars, which is a credit to each performer, with kudos to Jennifer Martin (costumer), Jesse Sullivan (artistic director) and their uncredited hair and make-up stylists. The looks are flawlessly authentic, and every move, gesture, glance and aside is dialed in – a testament to their preparation and the leadership of director Marianne Savell.
Three of the actors are responsible for playing 33 parts in this play. Friday plays 13 characters including mean old Mr. Potter and the hapless Uncle Billy. Amelia Dobbs as Lana Sherwood has nine roles, including Mary Hatch’s nemesis Violet, and George’s mother, Rose Bailey. Joshua Nicholson as Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, plays 11 roles including Clarence, George’s guardian angel. Each is an incredible character actor, able to switch easily from role to role and sometimes performing opposite themselves. And, they never seem to miss a beat, a line or a word as they swiftly move from one character to the next, assuming each voice and countenance – true professionals at their craft. Friday and Nicholson may remind you of versatile character actors from the ’40s and ’50s, while Dobbs recalls plucky and pretty actresses from that period as well. You might think of Gloria Grahame or Debbie Reynolds in their prime.
In addition to their off stage duties Sullivan (George Bailey) and Martin (Mary Hatch) have plenty to do in one role each. The pair craft a believable and somewhat steamy love story. Their chemistry is quite evident while George futilely tries to resist his feelings for her. Sullivan makes the role his own while including some nuances of Jimmy Stewart’s famous portrayal. Martin is the perfect girlfriend, wife and mother, but also expresses anger and fear when needed, especially when George desperately tries to get her to remember him during the climactic final sequence. It’s a powerful and somewhat scary scene.
All four children, Karly Friday as Young Mary/Janie, David Savastano as Young George /Pete, Violet Perry as Young Violet/Zuzu and Luca Bucci as Young Harry/Tommy, are so comfortable and expressive on stage. They were well prepared and seemed to be enjoying themselves, but beyond that, they were adorable and quite funny. A favorite moment involves tension between Young Violet and Young Mary over Young George. “You like every boy,” says Mary. “What’s wrong with that,” says Violet. Well done.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Presented by the Americana Theatre Company, through Dec. 15 at the Plymouth Center for the Arts, North Street, Plymouth. $30 seniors/students; $35 adults; americanatheatre.org
“It’s a Wonderful Life” works well on stage and screen, but seeing this fine troupe recreate the magic of radio is truly a pleasure.
If you go – arrive early and get situated. Seating is tight and it’s a 90-minute show without an intermission.
By Jim Dorman