As a story, It's a Wonderful Life took an odd path to the near-iconographic status it now enjoys. Frank Capra's 1946 film, while not really bombing, was greeted with middling reviews and less-than-boffo box office, and fell into the lesser ranks of Capra's pictures. An expired copyright in the mid-'70s opened up the movie's availability for showing by local stations. Subsequently, its popularity into the '80s and '90s skyrocketed as a Christmastime movie. On some evening in this period, I engaged in the surreal but fun exercise of flipping around five channels that were showing it simultaneously — including two that had been (shudder) colorized.
Although there were three live radio productions based on the movie almost immediately following its release — all three with James Stewart and Donna Reed reprising their lead roles — and the story subsequently was adapted three times for the stage, including two different musical versions (this is where repeated TV showings can get you as an existing work), what the North Coast Repertory Theatre has onstage is It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, penned by Joe Landry in 1997.
This is a marvelous format for the staging of the film's story, which is imagined as being broadcast from Studio A in New York City's WBFR on Christmas Eve of 1946, near the end the golden era of live radio. Radio plays themselves, with their real-time effects of the sounds of doors creaking open, glasses clinking, sounds of wind and storms, come from a different era and are not everyone's cup of tea. A friend who rebuffed my invitation to this production in a succinct text ("You know I hate theater"), would most likely not be the sort to be won over. And to see a production of a film that has seen by so many over the years, and that I nearly know by heart, comes with risks.
But in a way, such staging creates so much difference from the story. With a cast of five doing multiple character voices and also helping with the sound effects, you're not really at a standard theater production. You are, of course, presumed to be in the live audience at WBFR, a setting that includes a countdown to airtime, a flashing applause sign and the actors doing a pair of sponsor plugs (Bremel's Hair Tonic and Dux toilet cake). The cast members also assume the identities of radio actors with such names as Sally Applewhite, a former 1943 Miss Ohio, and Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood. This gives the proceedings a near-interactive and lively feel — when boos come from the audience, they're for the cunning guile of the story's villain, nefarious banker and town tycoon Henry Potter, not for the production itself.
Dave Fuller, last seen on stage locally in Ferndale Rep's Legally Blonde: The Musical, and G. Ganeau respectively handle only the voices of leads George Bailey and Mary Hatch (while the remaining cast tackles up to a dozen each) and do a great job of bringing to life a pair of characters whose arcs span from childhood to married life and parenthood within the two-hour running time. To try to rehash the plot of the story to anyone who's watched TV during the holidays in the past four decades would most likely be redundant, but It's a Wonderful Life is a darker film at various turns than most people recall, and NCRT's production conveys that well, right down to the whooshing sounds of snow and fidgety frustration that can boil over in the character of George Bailey, good-hearted citizen of Bedford Falls. After all, George's life is consumed in operating the family business he inherited from his father, but didn't really want ("spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe") and in serving as the main bulwark to Mr. Potter owning everything in town and keeping people renting his shabby properties.
Potter is voiced by NCRT vet Tyler Egger, who expands on and leans into the petty villainy. Dave Simms does a fine Clarence the Angel, whose observation of George, Mary and the denizens of Bedford Falls over time gives the play a solid framing device.
The cast of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, ably helmed by director Kate Haley, who also handles sound design (and writes reviews for the Journal) jells well together. Their cohesiveness allows one to appreciate the multitasking and commotion that went into live radio broadcasts and, as such, delivers a new take on a story known well by so many. Certainly much more so than some schmucks just colorizing the original film.
Tune in for It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play showings at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 12 and on Thursday, Dec. 10. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. on Nov. 29 and Dec. 6. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.
Fans of Louisa May Alcott, hang onto your bonnets. Little Women Musical opens at Ferndale Repertory Theatre with a preview show on Nov. 25 and continues through Dec. 20 with shows with Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
Redwood Curtain Theatre puts the bug in humbug with Cricket on the Hearth, a musical adapted from the Charles Dickens holiday classic. The tale of misers and imposters runs Nov. 27 through Dec. 13 with 8 p.m. shows on Fridays, Saturday, and Sundays, plus a Sunday, Dec. 6 matinee at 2 p.m. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
Dell'Arte takes a fairy tale turn with Li'l Red in the Redwoods, a family-friendly musical playing at locations around the county from Nov. 30 through Dec. 19. Many shows are free and food donations for Food for People are requested. Call 669-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.