Most of us grew up watching Frank Capra’s classic American film IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE on television. For many it’s become an integral part of their holiday season. Well, now Colonial Playhouse is offering a stage adaptation of George Bailey’s story. Directed by Sam Barrett, the production runs on the theatre’s Magnolia Avenue stage from November 7—22, 2014, with performances Fridays thru Sundays.
Considered one of the most popular films ever made, Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE hit movie theaters in 1946. It was adapted from a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” written by Philip Van Doren Stern in November 1939. Stern was unsuccessful in getting his piece published, so he made it into a Christmas card, mailing 200 copies to family and friends in December 1943. The story came to the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead, and the rest, as they say, is history. Much to Capra’s surprise and delight, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’s elevation to a beloved classic occurred when it became a staple of holiday television viewing in the 1970s.
There are actually a couple of stage versions of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE; there’s a clever “Radio Play” adaptation by Joe Landry, and the narrative edition by James W. Rodgers that Colonial has opted for. I won’t go into delineating the storyline as I’m sure most are more than familiar with it. JP Timlin takes on the iconic role of George Bailey, with Annaliese Gove as his wife, Mary. The two play off each other quite nicely—avoiding the pitfall of imitating their film counterparts. Timlin is onstage for much of the production and manages to hold the audience’s attention throughout, though at times he was a little too overwrought in the dramatic moments. Gove is a lovely actress, and brings real warmth to her role. Thom Conroy does a great job as “Angel 2nd Class” Clarence, displaying just the right amount of dithering. Gene Harris was fun to watch as Mr. Potter, playing a subtle evilness without degenerating into parody. Jim Copeland’s Uncle Billy was fine, but he could project a little better. The rest of Colonial’s ensemble serve the production well. They are: Jim Hulme (Voice of Joseph & Potter’s Goon), John Vicente (Mr. Gower, the pharmacist), Hannah McGrath (Young George & Janie Bailey), Steve Lythgoe (Harry Bailey), Joanne Naughton (Mother Bailey), Joan Bickel (Aunt Tilly), Cassie Rosin (Violet Peterson), Rob Kedra (Bert the cop) and Bill Harburcak (Ernie the cabbie), with Kathryn Leech, Jake Sloss, Jean Marie Martin, Seth Guard, Patrick O’Neil and Maddie McCormick as assorted townsfolk. Sarah McGrath and Ellie Meltzer appear as the younger Bailey children.
Barrett manages to keep the action moving, hitting all the familiar plot points well. But some scene changes could have been orchestrated better, and more musical underscoring throughout would help as well. Jim Copeland and Ron Hill have provided a simple yet serviceable set for the story to unfold upon, while Patrick O’Neil served as scenic artist. The lighting provided by David Hutchman and James Meinel puts the focus where needed nicely and Gove has costumed the ensemble appropriately. Sound design was done by Seth Guard. He sets the mood nicely during the pre-show.
If you like to get in the holiday spirit early—and gear up for all that shopping—head over to Colonial Playhouse to catch IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE before the 22nd. Help Clarence get those wings!
Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Adapted for the stage by James W. Rodgers
Directed by Sam Barrett
November 7—22, 2014
522 West Magnolia Avenue (@ Ridley Avenue)