IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY

A Christmas Classic with a Gift

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

A Live Radio Play

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: December 2, 2021 – January 2, 2022

Ticket Prices: $36-$56. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A Live Radio Play is a feel-good American holiday classic that unfolds on a stage designed to look like an art deco Christmas card. The set represents the stage and auditorium of Studio A at WBFR in Manhattan, New York on Christmas Eve 1946. An On Air sign adds authenticity, and Applause signs provide cues for the audience – so pay attention.

The house lights are on as the action starts, and we quickly find out that we, the VaRep audience, have been assigned roles as the live studio audience. The actors, playing multiple roles, greet us – some more warmly than others – as they arrive for their show. It seems that not everyone had been told they would be performing before a live studio audience.

The story, adapted by Joe Landry from Phillip Van Doren Stern’s story “The Greatest Gift,” (and the 1946 film starring James Steward and Donna Reed) is an Everyman morality play that borrows freely from “A Christmas Carol.” In IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, we meet George Bailey on Christmas Eve 1946, at the nadir of his life’s journey. After giving up his personal dreams for the sake of his family, his friends, and his town, he finds himself about to lose everything and, in the words of his arch enemy, Mr. Potter, he’s worth more dead than alive.

The holidays are a stressful time for many, and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE acknowledges this very real problem, but balances it with humor and the most unusual distraction found in any play. Some of the humor comes in the form of breaks to acknowledge the sponsors of the play within the play. There’s a commercial for Bremo hair cream and Duck’s Toilet Cake Soap, set to Christmas tunes and sung by the cast within the cast. As for the distraction, well, for me, the best part of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is watching the cast perform the role of the Foley artists who create the sound effects. There’s everything from footsteps and doors slamming shut to breaking glass, from doorbells ringing to thunderclaps.

The talented cast includes Kurt Benjamin Smith and Anna da Costa in the lead roles of Jake Laurents and Sally Applewhite, New York City actors who in turn play the roles of Bedford  Falls, NY residents George and Mary. Maggie Bavolack, Joshua Mullins, William Anderson, and Bo Wilson round out the cast playing the roles of actors Lana Sherwood, Harry Heywood, radio host Freddie Filmore, and actor Oliver Johnston. They, in turn, play all the citizen of Bedford Falls, NY, the small town where George Bailey’s guardian angel arrives on Christmas Eve to show him how much of an impact his life has had on so many.

I thought Smith and da Costa had good chemistry and da Costa was powerfully understated as Mary – especially as many of the other characters were so over the top. Anderson, for instance, was steady and unassuming as Freddie Filmore, the radio show host, but high-pitched, hysterical, and giggly as Uncle Billy Of course, given Uncle Billy’s proclivity for liquid fortification, this was completely in character. Maggie Bavolack looked gorgeous as Lana Sherwood and her Bedford Falls characters varied from loyal friend to va-va-voom girl, complete with a drum-roll to accompany her seductive strut. Bo Wilson sampled his various voices before the radio show cast metamorphosed into their Bedford Falls characters, but he seemed to relish the evil Mr. Potter more than any other.

Given the often quick pace of the show, and with six actors playing multiple characters who often spoken over one another, it was necessary to clearly distinguish between the various characters, and most of the time I was, indeed, able to keep up with who was who. At first I was concerned that the background music was too loud and intrusive, but this issue was short-lived. After the introductions, the background music faded into the background where it belonged.

The six actors shared three mic stands, and switched rapidly between them, but this was not necessarily an indication of a change of character, so IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE really keeps the viewer engaged and actively involved. This is a plus given that the show, which runs an hour and 45 minutes was performed without intermission. (Even though this is a family-friendly play, VaRep cautions prospective members that younger viewers may be challenged by the length of this production, given that there is no intermission.)

Mercedes Schaum’s scenic design was attractive and practical, allowing space for all the Foley equipment without overpowering the actors. Sue Griffins’ costumes were appropriate for the time, 1946, but Mary Hatch Bailey’s dress was especially fetching. Jacob Mishler gets the credit for the impressive sound design. Chelsea Burke’s direction kept things moving at a speedy pace, and maintained a comfortable balance between the extremes of comedy and tragedy. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a wonderful show that belongs in your canon of Christmas rituals.

NOTE: For my review of a similar show, A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, November 2018 – January 2019, click here: https://wordpress.com/post/jdldancesrva.com/724

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A Live Radio Play

Adapted by Joe Landry

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is based on the story, “The Greatest Gift” by Phillip Van Doren Stern from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling

DIRECTION

Chelsea Burke

CAST

Jake Laurents…………………………. Kurt Benjamin Smith

Sally Applewhite……………………………… Anna da Costa

Lana Sherwood……………………………. Maggie Bavolack

Harry Heywood………………………………. Joshua Mullins

Freddie Filmore……………………………William Anderson

Oliver Johnston………………………………………… Bo Wilson

Cover…………………………………………………. Nora Ogunleye

Cover………………………………………………… Alvan Bolling II

CREATIVE TEAM

Scenic Design………………………………… Mercedes Schaum

Costume Design ……………………….…………….…. Sue Griffin

Lighting Design ………….,…………………….….. BJ Wilkinson

Dialect Coach ………………………….………Karen Kopryanski

Sound Design ………………………………………… Jacob Mishler

Stage Management ………………………….…….. Justin Janke

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

Virginia Rep COVID Guidelines

To provide the highest level of safety, all patrons are required to show proof of vaccination, or proof that they have received a negative COVID test by a professional technician within 48 hours of the performance date/time.

Patrons must show your vaccination card or a photo of the card on your phone, along with a valid photo ID, when you arrive for the performance. If you are unable to be vaccinated, you may provide proof of a Rapid COVID-19 antigen test taken within 48 hours of your performance. At home tests will not be accepted.

Please see the Virginia Rep Covid Safety FAQ for details.

In accordance with current city, state, and CDC guidance, face masks are REQUIRED at all times while you are in the building, regardless of whether or not you have been vaccinated.

At this time, no food or drink is allowed in the theatre.

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Author: jdldances

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and transplanted to Richmond, VA. A retiree from both the New York City and Richmond City Public School systems, she is currently an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds the degrees of BS and MA in Dance and Dance Education (New York University), MSEd in Early Childhood Education (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and EdD in Educational Leadership (Regent University). Julinda is the Richmond Site Leader for TEN/The Eagles Network and was formerly the East Region Coordinator for the International Dance Commission and has worked in dance ministry all over the US and abroad (Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Puerto Rico). She is licensed in dance ministry by the Eagles International Training Institute (2012), and was ordained in dance ministry through Calvary Bible Institute and Seminary, Martinez, GA (2009).

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