REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play (ATC)

  
  

A Christmas window to an American past

  
  

Chrisopher McLinden, MaryWinn Heider - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC Chicago

  
American Theater Company presents
  
It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play
  
Adapted by Joe Landry
Directed by
Jason W. Gerace
at
American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through Dec 26  | 
tickets: $35-$40  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is something warm and centering about American Theater Company’s perennial holiday offering, It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play. Tom Burch’s scenic design, a variety of warm wood tones set with holiday greenery, grounds the production in its vision of a solid, comforting past. Likewise, Katherine Stebbins’ late 40’s period costumes render a satisfying illusion of our parents or grandparents in their heyday—the ladies’ perfect period hair and makeup set off with bold poinsettia corsages; the men in period suits and sweaters, sporting red and white carnation buttonholers. Just sitting in the cast’s presence can feel as reassuring as Dad’s hand on your shoulder or Mom asking how your day went.

Joseph Anthony Foronda and Alan Wilder - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC ChicagoDirected by Jason W. Gerace, one can slip as easily into the performance as into an old pair of slippers and that might be part of the problem. ATC’s cast has a lot of comfort to give and their meticulous, professional execution of an American classic unquestionably impresses. However, the production also has the tendency to oversell its stabilizing comfort and forget the dramatic verve that drove Frank Capra’s original creation. Thankfully, there are some things here that are even better than Capra’s iconic movie: Christopher McLinden and Mary Winn Heider produce much stronger romantic chemistry between George Bailey and Mary Hatch than Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed did; somehow the confrontation scenes between George and Mr. Potter (Alan Wilder) more potently expose Potter’s amoral duplicity.

But for the most part, the cast could kick up the energy just a notch. Most take on multiple roles and sometimes character distinctiveness gets lost in the mishmash–Frank Capra’s direction excelled in making each character’s personality stand out uniquely. Of course, there are notable exceptions. Steppenwolf stalwart Alan Wilder practically channels the ghost of Lionel Barrymore with his dead-on imitation of Mr. Potter. Joseph Anthony Foronda backs up the production solidly with his portrayals of George’s father, Uncle Billy and Joseph.

But the production offers something more than just a nostalgic replay of Frank Capra’s iconic film; it offers a communal reminder of the way we were—and might still be—at the height of historic uncertainty over what America is or where we are going. The dialogue still delivers the best critique of capitalism in the American dramatic canon. As a humorous anachronistic touch, though, Chris Amos entertainingly plugs neighborhood businesses. Just as in the old days the advertising is interspersed throughout the story. Promoting businesses that sell vegan treats certainly brings us back to the present—it is, after all, about paying the bills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (NobleFool)

  
  

If you love the movie, you’ll adore the play

  
  

George Keating, Emily Leahy, and Anna Hammonds

   
   
Noble Fool Theatricals presents
    
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
        

Adapted by
Joe Landry
from screenplay by
Goodrich, Hackett, Capra, Swerling
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main, St. Charles (map)
Through Dec. 26  | 
tickets: $29.50–39.50  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Frank Capra’s 1946 film, "It’s a Wonderful Life," starring James Stewart, tends to provoke extremes of reaction.

Like the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play offers upbeat, family-friendly Christmas entertainment, in which you can count on a happy ending. If you adore the original, you’ll likely feel the same about the perfectly sweet production at Noble Fool Theatricals in St. Charles. If the movie gives you the bah humbugs, nothing about this live version — which, if anything, amps up the cuteness — will change your mind.

(From left) Jessie Fisher, George Keating and Anna HammondsOf course, there’s no suspense left whatsoever. Except for his one lapse into despair, George remains saintly and forbearing; Mr. Potter remains money-grubbing and evil-minded; and Angel Second Class Clarence still twinkles.

This 1996 stage adaptation by Joe Landry frames the story of small-town do-gooder George Bailey as a 1940s radio show, replacing the movie’s dozens of characters with a cast of five. They portray radio actors performing a Christmas Eve broadcast of "It’s a Wonderful Life" before a live audience.

New fun comes in the logistics of the radio performance on Kevin Depinet’s convincing stage set and the versatility of the actors. Director Rachel Rockwell has assembled a talented cast, who sing such songs as "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "Merry American Christmas" along with performing the play within the play.

Jack Sweeney doubles as sound-effects man and actor, rushing back and forth with earnest fervor. George Keating, as the lead actor portraying George Bailey, offers a resemblance to Stewart with a less laconic style. Dev Kennedy plays the slightly irascible station manager and a variety of voice parts with verve.  Anna Hammonds and Jessie Fisher give freshness to the female roles. Tom Clear ably plays multiple roles, including Clarence, as well as accompanying beautifully on piano, a highlight of the show.

Rockwell’s production shifts the frame’s setting from Manhattan to Chicago and heightens the cuteness factor with some youthful additions, including a schoolgirl singing ensemble with their teacher (Laura Eilers). Two alternating groups of adorable little girls sing a holiday song and stand in as the Bailey children (Emily Leahy, Kelsey Pettrone, Rebecca Roy, Marie Turner and Melissa Wickland and Leikyn Bravo, Megan Graal, Amelia Kuhlman, Annamaire Schutt and Madysen Simanonis).

This production also gives the soundman a young nephew. Stirling Joyner is appealing, but the role doesn’t add much to the plot. The local adaptation also adds some straightforward commercials for Fox Valley businesses to Landry’s comic, period-style advertisements for hair tonic and soap.

 

From left) Jessie Fisher, George Keating and Anna Hammonds (From left) Jessie Fisher, Dev Kennedy, Anna Hammonds and George Keating

Based on Phillip Van Doren Stern’s short story, "The Greatest Gift," Capra’s idealistic film about how one man can make a difference and goodwill can triumph over material wealth was not a great critical or box-office success at its premiere. The New Yorker described the movie as "so mincing as to border on baby talk," and it drew only $3.3 million in ticket sales, $8 million less than "The Best Years of Our Lives," released at the same time. Only after the Capra film’s copyright lapsed in the 1970s and it began to get annual showings on television did it became a favorite holiday tradition, perhaps because, as it aged, it touched viewers’ nostalgic yearning for a period when people’s motivations seemed black and white — whereas its contemporary audiences knew no such time existed.

"It’s a Wonderful Life" is a fantasy, and not just because of the angel. If that’s your taste in Christmas entertainment, you’ll enjoy it.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Anna Hammonds and George Keating