No, there is nothing wrong with your eyes. The Milburn Stone Theatre’s latest production, ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE, is being presented in black and white. Based on the classic 1946 Christmastime film starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is the story of George Bailey (Dan Karrer), a kind hearted hometown boy whose penchant for helping out his fellow townspeople has a profound effect on the lives of those around him, even if he doesn’t know it himself. He and his Building and Loan are the last refuge against the entire takeover of the town by Mr. Potter (Mike Ware), a fact that sticks in Potter’s craw. Potter hatches several schemes to take Bailey down, until the right scheme falls into his lap. Facing the prospect that he is worth more dead than alive, George seeks to cash in on that, but the intervention by an angel (second class) named Clarence (Charles Johnson) tries to change that.
Throughout the production we are taken through a virtual who’s who of the community of Bedford Falls, NY. We meet George’s wife Mary (Barbara Walker), his kids Pete (Henry Watkins), Tommy (Geffen Stanhope), Zuzu (Caitlin Lee), and Janie (Ava Sekowski), his mother (Eileen Law Stewart), his business partner Uncle Billy (Phil Hansel), his Aunt Tilly (Justine Quirk), and childhood friend Violet Peterson (Tess Pohlhaus), among many others.
George Bailey is a well-known role that was played by beloved actor Jimmy Stewart. Stewart had a very unique style and pattern of speaking. It is those patterns that most associate with the role. So trying to fill big shoes can be a challenge. Either you make the role your own and risk having all the lovers of the movie not “buy” you as the character, or you give in and just shallowly pretend to be the actor that originated the role. I am happy to say that Karrer finds a delightful third option. He makes the role his own, but embodies just enough of the physical quirks of Stewart to evoke the memories of the movie character. As an example, Stewart often stuttered his way through many of the lines. Karrer does not vocalize the stutters (at least from what I could hear) but subtly includes physical cues in his delivery that mimicks Stewart just enough to make George familiar. It is quite an impressive feat!
Walker’s performance as Mary is touching. We can easily see why George falls in love with her. She is a free spirit, and a warm one at that.
Mike Ware, as always, brings his tremendous talent to the part of Mr. Potter. He is very hatable. He is a commanding presence when on stage, which is perfect for that role.
As I mentioned, the show is presented in black and white. As such all set, props, costumes, and actors appear in shades of gray. Only white light is employed too. This is a novelty effect that some theatres have begun using when presenting shows based on old black and white movies. It is meant to touch on the nostalgia for the time and judging by some of the comments I heard during intermission and after the show, it did. Many people were impressed with and loved the effect.
I and my companions (my kids), however, were less so. I had never seen this effect employed and was excited to see it. It is impressive for the first five minutes or so. But then it quickly becomes a distraction. The make-up employed to render the actors in black and white can be quite creepy. The set, which is sparse to begin with (two covered scaffold towers with a connecting bridge between them which forms an upper playing area and a ramp between the towers to the lower playing area), seems just depressing. I do applaud them for taking a chance on this technique. It is one I once considered myself many years ago when proposing a show idea. But it is one that I just don’t think, for me anyway, translates well. In retrospect, I think I would have enjoyed more having the wonderful story of the movie being told through a very real and full color presentation.
From a performance standpoint Act I is a little jarring. It seems to drag despite the fact that the actors are rushing their deliveries. However, everyone seems to settle in by Act II, which does have a powerful effect at the end. In fact, a tissue concession stand would do well. I would have been first in line.
My two companions for the evening, reviewers in their own right, would have preferred a more “modern” feel (ah youth). However, my son was impressed with the star field backdrop. My daughter felt Mary was “beautiful” and that Ware was “very good in his part” as Potter.
Overall, ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE is a good production. If you are fan of the movie (and who isn’t if they have seen it), you will enjoy this production. Its a delightful way to kick off the holiday season. But I have been told that presales on tickets have been very high, so it is strongly recommended that you purchase tickets in advance.
ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE
Adapted for the stage by James W. Rodgers
Based on the film by Frank Capra
And the story by Philip van Doren Stern
Directed by Dane Hutchinson
November 22 – December 1, 2013
Milburn Stone Theatre
1 Seahawk Dr.
North East, MD