The Road Company’s Live! IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Radio Play at the Grand Theatre

by Jack Shaw

It’s a wonderful story, a wonderful film and play, and now there is the live radio play, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Radio Play in at the Grand Theatre in Williamstown, New Jersey, courtesy The Road Company. It’s certainly not your usual Holiday show. Joe Landry’s adaptation of the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling boils the original classic story down to a roughly 60 minutes of fast-paced entertainment. This is theatre, complete with commercials, interesting on several levels.

Most of us have seen the American holiday classic film. Perhaps not the youngest among us, and they should. Now, you can hear it as it might have sounded in the 1940s…on the radio. The Road Company production does a great job of showing us a nostalgic look at the film. We see Jake Laurents as the actor who plays George Bailey as “he” sees him. And, so it goes for all the characters. We view the story live—well, mostly, since it is a play. Performed as a radio play, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, brings its own special connection; the story, characters and meaning play out more intimately by interaction of the players who are as affected by the story as we are. It is this sense of intimacy that drives the show, and in some ways, personalizes the story for everyone, including actors and crew, more than the film.

The Road Company’s production of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, A Radio Play, has grand lighting and sound, wonderful costumes and a beautiful set, to create a realistic 1940s’ radio show. The cast of both adults and children is sensational. The show is an entertaining and interesting variation of a holiday classic.

The Cast:
Ed Ippolito as “Jake Laurents” playing “George Bailey”. Jake sounds a lot like Jimmy Stewart. Colleen Murphy as “Sally Applewhite” playing “Mary Hatch”. Alyssa Phillips plays “Violet”, “Rose” and others. Charles L. Bandler plays “Joseph”, “Gower”, “Potter” and others. The play also stars Ant Viera as “Harry”, “Bert”, “Clarence”, “Dr. Campbell” and others and Joe Sweeney as “the Announcer”, “Uncle Billy” and others. “Young George” and “Tommy” are played by Matthew Brodsky. “Young Harry” and “Pete” are played by Aaron LeVan. Taylor Swanger plays “Young Mary” and “Janie”, while Faith Mintel plays “Young Violet” and “Zuzu”.

The players are talented and showcased well. The actors are superb. It is essentially an ensemble piece and it looks wonderful—as indeed it is. The set that looms before you is terrific with a WBFR Radio logo in art deco. The costumes were awesome as well. Five adult actors and four child actors make up the ensemble cast. Be careful though, the frenetic action on and off the stage, and character switching can make it hard to follow, but not without being delightfully entertaining.

IT’S WONDERFUL LIFE – A Radio Play, is engaging, full of warmth and fun–a refreshingly different holiday treat that should not be missed.

A theatre note. By itself, a radio show is one less dimensional than the theatre; however, combine the two and you bring depth to the art. The upstage action we discourage for actors on stage is encouraged here. Actors, who interact behind actors in the front, steal moments (probably unknowingly) by upstaging the “story”. I found this to be distracting as I would with any production. The idea is to create another level of appreciation. So, focus on the story is still important.

Bringing all the actors to the front and having the theatre audience play the part of the radio stage audience are great ideas, although this theatre may be too large for it to work effectively. The side action or back (upstage) action behind draws our attention away from the front.

The idea is for this player interaction to be present but not “upstage” the other actors.It’s not any individual’s fault, but it happens when there are two actions on stage. One takes precedence. Which one is the one to which the director leads us. In all fairness, this predicament is easier to see with an audience than without one, and, of course, it will be up to individual perception if upstaging is apparent. Still, the production shows heart, and a lot of it.

The Road Company’s production of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A Radio Play has very fine actors, both young children and adults. You can hear the actors from the film. The impressions are good as impressions get. Ed Ippolito gives a consistently great vocal “impression” of Jimmy Stewart, the actor who has a very distinctive way of speaking, and is the most recognizable actor in the film.

For me though, “impressions” are entertaining by themselves. However, is it acting when used in a play? If used in the theatre, actors/characters create an imitation of the original, rather than define a new twist. Directors are usually keen to tell actors not to mimic other performances. Meaning, don’t-watch-the-film-first is not conducive to creating something new unless what you are doing is spoofing the subject you are imitating. Theatre is big on poking fun at every social foible and bad habit we humans have, often providing life parodies, but not here. The story here is sacrosanct.

Adapted by Joe Landry
From the Screenplay
By Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling
Directed by Bryan Mead
405 S. Main Street Williamstown, NJ 08094
(856) 728-2120

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