Friday, December 22, 2017

It's A Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play - All About Making A Difference

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Each person’s life touches others, often in the most unexpected ways. It’s a lesson learned by George Bailey in the 1946 film “It’s A Wonderful Life", and given a new twist with Anthony E. Palermo's adaptation of the work as a live radio performance. Previously seen at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2013, the piece has returned for an encore engagement, making for a heartwarming holiday treat.

Set in the same year as the film, the  Palermo version takes place in a broadcast studio of radio station WIRT. Complete with a Christmas tree, an assortment of holiday cards, several rather warn and slightly mismatched chairs, and photos of the various movies stars on the walls. Including such figures as Doris Day, Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, and Jimmy Stewart. As Bing Crosby yuletide tunes play over the station loudspeakers and the studio clock moves along in real time, the actors begin to gather for the broadcast.

"It's A Wonderful Life" tells the story of George Baily (Aaron Gaines). Hailing from the small town of Bedford Falls - one of those places where everybody knows everyone else - George had plans to go college and travel the world. Until circumstances and a deep sense of loyalty forced him to give up his dreams and take over the family savings and loan business. When $8,000, which was supposed to be deposited in the bank, suddenly goes missing, and an arrest warrant hanging over his head, George contemplates taking his own life. It's up to Clarence Oddbody (Dewey Caddell) -- an angel, second class -- to show George that he really did have a life that mattered. If Clarence can do that, he will finally earn his wings, after 200 years of waiting.

The story, as enacted here, is quite engaging. So much so that by the time the final act begins, one would be hard pressed not to believe the characters and situations presented are quite real. The cast of six talking into microphones and reading from scripts as they embody over 25 different speaking parts. Various changes in costume, used to differentiate the shift from one role from the next, are done to present a more rounded picture of the different characters to the audience. Charlotte Moore's direction is mostly spot-on throughout, allowing the story to unfold quite seamlessly as it draws the audience into the tale.

At the same time, there are frequent reminders that what we are seeing is indeed a radio play. Such as the use of commercial breaks; the way the actors move about in their "normal" personas when not acting out the various characters; or when they have direct interaction with the audience. As when the station Announcer (Ian Holcomb) welcomes the audience to the studio where the performance will be held, and also explains the need for their immediate response whenever the "applause" sign flashes.

We also get to see a demonstration of devices once used to produce sound effects for radio broadcasts. Among them, the crunching of cornflakes to imitate the footsteps of someone walking in snow. The different effects done by Rory Duffy, who acts as the station's SFX Artist, in addition to various characters in the radio play. The use of live commercials are also a particularly nice touch. They offering a 1946 perspective on such subjects as cigarettes - endorsed by doctors and nurses - and medication for females at that special time of the month.

Aaron Gaines is quite good as George. The character coming off as an honest, hardworking sort who has long since felt life has passed him by. At least, until Clarence intervenes. It also helps that Gaines and Haley Bond - who plays George's wife, Mary - are able to make the interplay between their two characters seem fresh and immediate, especially during a courtship sequence. This helping to show the growing emotional bond that develops between the couple.

While George is the lynchpin around which the story revolves, the character is somewhat limited in his makeup, due to his straight-arrow nature. It's also the reason why some of his later outbursts of joy, which work fine on a giant movie screen, come off as rather hokey when performed in an intimate venue. Actor Dewey Caddell however, has no such problems. Playing a variety of characters, from the evil Mr. Potter who wants to own the entire town of Bedford Falls; to Pop Bailey, a true salt-of-the-earth type; to the terribly earnest Clarence; Caddell is able to make each of the personas he inhabits come powerfully to life.

Also working quite well is Ian Holcomb who, in addition to his announcer duties, takes on the roles of, among others, the Superintendent of Angels, George's Uncle Willie, Ernie the Cabdriver and Nick the Bartender. All with appropriate changes in costume, head gear and accent. Rounding out the cast is Orlagh Cassidy - the diva among the actors at the radio station - who shows off her versatility by playing characters ranging from the very young to the very old.

It’s A Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play allows a much-beloved tale to be seen in an entirely new way. It's a great treat for the holiday season, or any other time of the year, for that matter.

It's A Wonderful Life: The Live Radio Play

Adapted from the Frank Capra film by Anthony E. Palermo

Featuring: Haley Bond (Mary Hatch Bailey, Mrs. Davis), Dewey Caddell (Clarence, Mr. Potter, Pop Bailey, Mr. Gower, Martini), Orlagh Cassidy (Ma Bailey, Ma Hatch, Cousin Tilly, Toll Taker, Bank Teller, Janie Bailey, Zuzu Bailey, Impatient Neighbor, Suzie), Rory Duffy (SFX Artist, Officer Bert, Dr. Campbell, Sam Wainwright, Mr. Welch, Petey Bailey, Sheriff, Randy), Aaron Gaines (George Bailey), Ian Holcomb (Announcer, Superintendent of Angels, Uncle Billy, Harry Bailey, Ernie, Nick, Mr. Carter).

Set Design: James Morgan
Costume Design: Barbara Bell
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Live Sound Design: Zach Williamson
Associate Sound Designer: Walter Tillman
Production Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Assistant Stage Manager: Marian Hyfler
Press Representative: Matt Ross Public Relations
General Manager: Lisa Fane
Directed by Charlotte Moore

Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running time: 75 minutes no intermission

Closes: December 31, 2017

No comments: