The holiday season is the perfect time for a play that features an angel showing a compassionate, but despairing and desperate man what life would have been like if he had never existed.
It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra film set in the small city of Bedford Falls, N.Y. near the end of World War II, and starring James Stewart as George Bailey, is a staple of holiday television schedules, and for many a seasonal viewing tradition. What’s remarkable about It’s a Wonderful Life is how well it’s held up over the years, together with other classic films such as Casablanca or The Third Man: films that improve with familiarity.
But what if you could only hear rather than see the classic film? In this Pacific Theatre production, the movie has been transformed by Peter Church into a script-in-hand 1940’s radio show (Mr. Church also performs the part of Clarence the angel). The Pacific Theatre allows us to take a step back in time as the beloved holiday-season drama is brought to life as a radio broadcast from the “golden age of radio”, with the theatre audience as a live studio audience.
The alley-style theater lends itself well to this type of production as the seating is arranged in two wings with the stage in the middle, allowing for a inherent sense of intimacy not always possible in more traditional seating arrangements.
The cast is uniformly excellent, but special mention is required for John Voth who, as George Bailey, must carry the action. Mr. Voth is a tall, imposing man who is front-and-centre wherever he appears on stage. Some actors play three to four characters and must change their voices and mannerisms to fit each role. The play calls for approximately two dozen separate characters plus ensemble scenes, played by nine different actors.
But this production is not only a radio play, it is a radio show as the title makes clear. Actors must not only play their scripted roles, but also shift into songs, old-fashioned radio commercials, jingles, and as required, sound effects.
As well as moving seamlessly from one role to another and reading their lines directly from hand-held scripts, the cast must constantly navigate around each other and a set anchored by several authentic-looking microphones. This is a tribute to the smooth direction of Sarah Rodgers and Stage Manager Shelby Bushell. Like a real and professional radio show, the timing is perfect and the audience remains thoroughly engaged throughout.
Most impressive as well is the ensemble singing on commercials (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Lux soap) and on hits of the World War II era (Guy Lombardo’s Managua Nicaragua and the Andrews Sisters’ Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree) by the trio of Kirsty Provan, Diana Squires, and Kaitlin Williams, ably backed up by the male cast members. And when one speaks of singing, special mention must be given to the wonderful voice of Chris Lam.
The technical aspects are crucially important to the success of this production: the sound effects created by a sound artist on stage, the piano player, the costumes and hair styles of the period, the lighting of the set, the props.
The technical team of Phil Miguel (Technical Director), Amy McDougall (Set and Costumes Designer), Kougar Basi (Lighting Designer), Rick Colhoun (Sound Patterns Designer), and Joel Stephanson (Pianist and Music Director) each bring their talents to bear in exactly reproducing a radio studio of the era. There are some really nice small touches. I especially noted the nylon stockings with the seams up the back — and the pumps.
The movie is based on a story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. George learns from Clarence the angel that the greatest gift we bring is friendship and the ability to make a difference in the lives of other people.
In the end, it is the humanity of the characters and the eternal truth of the message of this piece that so well embodies the spirit of Christmas. And thanks to this excellent ensemble cast, the audience can readily imagine both their emotions and their adventures as they read their scripts over the microphones, just like listening to a real radio broadcast.
So instead of staying at home in front of the TV, come out to the Pacific Theatre. Bring your family, and discover that there’s a reason why the classics are the classics, and why an angel get its wings every time a bell rings.
It’s a Wonderful Life Radio Show continues at the Pacific Theatre through December 30.
Photos by Ron Reed.