Radio Days: MN Spotlight Takes to the “Airwaves” with IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE—A LIVE RADIO PLAY

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Okay, if you aren’t familiar with the beloved Frank Capra film, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, you’ve been stuck down a mineshaft for decades or something. Its annual airings on television has placed the film firmly at the center of America’s Holiday season (along with Charlie Brown’s tree). For many it’s just not Christmas if they don’t watch this movie. So, it’s not surprising MN Spotlight would chose to mount a stage adaptation of George Bailey’s story. Directed by Josh Gosselin, the production runs in the company’s Park Avenue space at the Swarthmore Methodist Church from December 5th—14th, 2014, with performances Fridays thru Sundays.

Surprisingly, Capra’s film was only moderately successful during its initial theatrical release in 1946. However, 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. The source material is a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” written by Phillip Van Doren Stern in 1939. Unsuccessful in getting his piece published, Stern made a couple hundred copies and sent it to family and friends as a Christmas card in 1943. The story came to the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead, who showed it to Capra, and things took off from there.

There are two stage adaptations I’m aware of; a more traditional narrative version by James W. Rodgers (produced locally recently) and Landry’s imaginative foray into the world of live radio broadcasts in the 1940s. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE—a Live Radio Play was originally produced at Stamford Center for the Arts in 1996. The piece has gained popularity since and has now become a staple in a number of theatre companies around the country.

The premise here is that a small troupe of radio actors play all of the many characters in the story. In the 1940s, these broadcasts were done in front of a live audience. The fun for the viewers in studio was seeing actors voice multiple roles and fooling the home audience. Unfortunately, Spotlight’s cast of 11 falls a little short on this, with only a couple of the actors giving different twists to their many roles. While talented folk, I found it difficult to follow who was who as a result. Many of the cast were reading their roles from the script standing at music stands, so the performance was rather static. Judicious rearranging of the set (and losing the music stands) might free space up to allow the actors to move around a bit more—and create opportunities for silent interplay.

Gerry Alexander plays Freddie Fillmore the station’s announcer, as well as Joseph (the head Angel), Old Man Gower, George’s father, Ernie the cab driver, Nick the bartender, Uncle Billy and Mr. Potter. At one point, he spent about 5—8 minutes basically talking to himself (which must have been as confusing for him as it was for the audience). Dan Gudema portrays Clarence the Angel (with an on-again-off-again Irish brogue), Bert the cop, Sam Wainwright, Mr. Martini and Zuzu’s teacher’s irate husband. Lauri Jacobs (an actual radio announcer) seems to be having the most fun here; she plays Violet Bick, George’s mother Rose, the secretary at the Savings & Loan, Harry Bailey’s wife Ruth and Mary’s mother- Mrs. Hatch. The main characters as children, as well as George and Mary’s kids, are played by Greg Mostek and Sabrina Betts, who held their own quite nicely amongst the adults. The protagonists of the piece, George and Mary Bailey, are played by Mike Powell and Susan Triggiani—who work well off each other.

The live “Foley” effects supervised by Suzanne Oldham were well done—but some action and comedy might have been added by having her scrambling alone to do it all. Ms. Oldham is assisted by two youngsters: Madison Law and Abigail Oldham. They and Spotlight came up with some clever ways to produce the various sounds needed. Jack Gallagher handles the onstage recorded music and underscoring well. The script allows the presenting theatre company to create commercials in the style of radio’s heyday. It would have been great if Spotlight had used it as an opportunity to promote some of their advertisers and sponsors as opposed to ditties about the play we’re already in the theatre watching.

The set nicely evokes a 40s radio station, complete with authentic looking microphones and an “On Air/ Applause” sign. Roz Gosselin created nice looking 40s era costumes and Sue Abla has lit everything nicely.

Director Josh Gosselin speaks of his lifelong love of the film in his directorial note, writing of the special place it holds in his family’s holiday traditions. While he did a credible job here, it was a tad too reverential. Landry’s script is a comedic homage to Capra and radio, and Gosselin may have lost sight of that. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE—a Live Radio Play does touch on all of the heartwarming aspects of George Bailey’s story. So, if you need a little jolt of holiday spirit, check out Spotlight’s production.

by Joe Landry
Adapted from the screenplay by Frank Capra,
Frances Goodrich, Jo Swerling & Albert Hackett
Directed by Josh Gosselin
December 5—14, 2014
MN Spotlight Players
@ Swarthmore United Methodist Church
129 Park Avenue
Swarthmore, PA 19081

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