ON BOSTON STAGES.com – Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” wasn’t a success when the film first debuted in 1946. It never came close to earning back its $6.3 million production cost.
It was only in later years it became an iconic holiday classic, a part of virtually every list of the top movies of all time.
When playwright Joe Landry adapted the film for the stage – “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” – it became an instant hit. The 90-minute piece has seen more than 1,000 productions by regional theater companies since its 2007 debut.
The Americana Theatre Company production now onstage at the Plymouth Center for the Arts is fast, funny, skillfully acted and directed, and a warm blessing for the holiday season.
In Landry’s adaptation, the premise is that five actors have come together to stage the live radio play, Landry has omitted a few details and scenes from the film to fit the show into a smaller 90-minute window, but the essence of the story is still there.
It is Christmas Eve 1946 in Studio A and its auditorium at radio station WPLY in Plymouth, complete with a lit applause sign to cue us audience members when it’s time to get loud.
Announcer/actor Freddie Fillmore (David Friday) introduces the cast, which includes Jake Laurent (Jesse M. Sullivan), Sally Applewhite (Trina Vargas), Lana Sherwood (Erin Friday) and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood (Joshua Nicholson).
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is, of course, the story of George Bailey, who dreams of escaping his small-town life In Bedford Falls and seeing the world, but finds himself chained to the fortunes of the family-owned Bailey Building & Loan, which provides residents the means to buy their own homes and remain free of the slums owned by the miserly Mr. Potter.
When a misplaced deposit threatens the very existence of the business, George succumbs to despair and considers the notion that he is worth more to his family dead than alive. That requires the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence, to show him the difference he has made in the lives of many of the town’s residents.
While the five actors play dozens of adult parts, the children’s roles are performed by a skilled, well-rehearsed and very professional group that includes Evelyn Humani as Young Mary, David Savastano as Young George and Pete, Lexi Friday as Young Violet and Janie, Jude Sullivan as Young Harry and Tommy, and Sadie Metrano as a charming Zuzu.
In radio plays, the foley artist plays a key role in providing the sound effects that help move the story forward for listeners, and Johan Woods is an attentive and efficient technician.
While every cast member is integral to the success of the production, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is going nowhere without the considerable skills of David Friday as Fillmore and Nicholson as Heywood.
They portray dozens of characters, but many of their voice takes are distinctive and they give vivid life to the characters. That would include David Friday’s portrayals of the miserly Mr. Potter and the hapless Uncle Billy, and Nicholson’s work with Clarence the Guardian Angel, still second class and struggling after many years to win his wings; Harry Bailey; Bert the Cop; and Martini, the Italian-American bar owner.
Erin Friday as Lana Sherwood is also given a lot of work to do with various female roles, including the alluring Violet, the Bedford Falls siren who carries a torch for George through the years
Jesse M. Sullivan as Jake Laurents/George Bailey captures the innate decency and honor and sense of loyalty of George, his dreams stymied at every turn, while Trina Vargas embodies the sweetness and unlimited love and support of Mary Hatch Bailey, his wife whose application for sainthood is instantly approved when she gives up her $2,000 honeymoon jackpot to keep the Bailey Building & Loan open.
There’s even a funny but very skilled five-person harmony for an ad from Martini’s, a Plymouth restaurant and sponsor and coincidentally is named for the same bar portrayed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Director Marianne Savell keeps things flowing at a brisk pace, despite the nature of the piece, which because of the staging can be static at times.
The five adults and five children form a cohesive team in bringing out the best in each other, and the play itself.
And, coincidentally, the holiday season itself.
The Americana Theatre Company production of Joe Landry’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” Directed by Marianne Savell. Lighting design by Ciera Miller. Set and prop designs by David Friday. Artistic director/producer Jesse Sullivan. At the Plymouth Center for the Arts through Dec. 12. Americanatheatre.org/tickets or call 508 591 0282,
By Rich Fahey