Regional Reviews: New Jersey
A Wonderful Life Musical Adaptation of Classic Capra Film at Paper Mill
also see Bob's review of The Speed Queen
The Paper Mill Playhouse is offering a pleasant musical adaptation of the Frank Capra film classic It's a Wonderful Life as we enter the year-end holiday season. While it lacks the enveloping magic of the Capra perennial Christmas favorite, the stage musical, A Wonderful Life, does offer theatrical and musical pleasures of its own, making for warm and wholesome entertainment for Paper Mill's family audiences.
Sophie Rudin, James Clow, Frankie Dolce, Catherine Brunell,
Marisa Malanga, Sean Martin Hingston, Kellie Drinkhahn, J.B. Adams,
Jordan Cable, Allison Couture & Jan Pessano
Although there are elisions and altered details, the musical is essentially faithful to its source. There is an intelligent tightening of the story to accommodate the new format. As in the film, the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1945, when the deeply troubled George Bailey is contemplating suicide, and the bumbling incipient angel Clarence is sent to earth to earn his wings by saving him. Along with Clarence, we learn of the crucial events in the life of George Bailey which have brought him to despair. Rather than spanning 26 years beginning in 1919, the musical spans 17 years beginning with the day in 1928 when George Bailey picks up a valise for his planned summer trip to Europe before going off to college. The script refers to an altered version of how 12-year-old George saved his younger brother's life, whereas the incident when he prevented a grieving pharmacist from making a fatal error in filling a prescription has been omitted. Thereafter, we see how the self-sacrificing George gives up his dreams of travel, a college education and an exciting and rewarding career in order to help his father and then, after his father's death, sustain the latter's Savings and Loan in order to provide better lives for the working people of his small hometown.
Ultimately, Clarence appears to George, physically preventing his suicide. When George tells Clarence, "I wish I'd never been born," Clarence has the inspired notion of granting George's wish so as to allow him to see how many lives would have been adversely affected if he had never lived.
Faithful to the spirit of the brief short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern on which it is based, the vastly expanded screenplay with its rich detail of character and incident and populist sentiments is worthy of the accolade "the American Christmas Carol." Much of the dialogue employed by Sheldon Harnick's book is taken verbatim from the screenplay. However, the brilliant direction of Frank Capra ,with its flow of humanist scenes and characters, and iconic performances by the likes of Jimmy Stewart (George), Lionel Barrymore (Potter) and Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), and the recreation of an American small town to feed our nostalgia for a time and place which most of us have never known are beyond the range of this, or possibly any, musical stage adaptation.
In their place, we have a pleasant score by the late Joe Raposo (music) and Sheldon Harnick. There is a great deal of ambitious choral music which is employed to advance the plot. The choral "Find Me a House" (Can you find me house/ Small but nice/ A decent house/ At a decent price?/ Can you find me a house in good repair/ Whose rooms are filled with light and air?") is particularly beautiful. There are some very pleasant, traditional style theatre songs. "If I Had a Wish" is a lovely, lilting duet for George and Mary with a charming lyric ("If I Had A Wish one wish/ one bona-fide, fool-proof wish"). There is also the upbeat, lighthearted title song ("I don't need a mansion/ One small room will do/ I'll have a wonderful life/ If I have you!").
James Clow sings and acts well. However, he lacks the warmth and star quality to fully engage us. Catherine Brunell is an exceptionally fine Mary. Her singing is excellent, and her performance has a buoyancy and likeability that is always engaging. Nick Wyman is solid as the villainous Henry Potter. Wyman strongly delivers First Class All the Way, the song in which Potter attempts to bribe and seduce George into giving up the savings and loan, and coming to working for him. Sean Martin Hingston as Sam Wainwright, the suitor whom Mary rejects in favor of George, performs with verve the generic Charleston, "In a State" (a list song rattling off the names of states with cities after which the dance may have been named).
Sizable contributions are made by Jeff Brooks (Clarence), John Jellison (Tom Bailey), and J. B. Adams (Uncle Billy) in featured roles.
Sadly, the lack of sufficient scenery is a major deficiency. During any number of scenes, the scenery occupies only about a third of the stage with the balance of the stage in total blackness. In two almost back to back bedroom scenes (in different bedrooms), to all intents and purposes, we have a bed placed onto a bare, black stage. The lightweight scenery that is on hand has been attractively designed by Charlie Smith. It is enhanced by the dramatic and distinctive lighting design of Richard Winkler. There are three tall cut-out buildings which we see in forced prospective, and upstage, one or another painted hanging sometimes provides the scenic background. The attractive, painted hanging depicting "Main Street" is severely underemployed given the alternative prevailing blackness. There is a turntable and other light flexible scenic elements, but the paucity of scenery and prevailing blackness detracts from enjoyment of the production. It seems apparent that Paper Mill is trying to be responsible in spreading limited resources. Still, A Wonderful Life cried out for the rich, cinematic quality which the digital projections of Rob Odorisio brought to Paper Mill's Harold and Maude, and, on a larger scale, to Frank Wildhorn's Waiting for the Moon in Marlton. The deleterious impact of the cut down scenery on the quality of this production cannot be ignored.
Paper Mill presented a staged reading of A Wonderful Life in 1990. The current production is the musical's premiere East Coast production. Harnick has stated that the delay in production was the result of unforeseen problems in securing rights to the underlying short story.
Director James Brennan has staged A Wonderful Life with imagination and style. This is particularly true during the scene in which Clarence distracts George from committing suicide (it's extremely effective and expends a minimum of resources), and, thereafter, during George's trip into the world that would have been if he had never been born. However, Brennan does not display the gift of maximizing the impact of his large cast of 30. Thus, scenes such as the run on the savings and loan appear under populated. Dance is not a major element here, and the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is tired and generic. It is a pleasure to report that the sound design was excellent (well balanced, clear and natural sounding).
A Wonderful Life features a tender and beautiful Raposo-Harnick song which deserves to become a holiday standard. It reflects the inspiring theme of A Wonderful Life and provides a lovely climax to a pleasurable evening. The song is titled "Christmas Gifts." It concludes: "Christmas gifts,/ Large and small,/ Gilding December,/ Helping us remember,/ Bidding us recall,/ The gift of life/ And the gift of love,/ The greatest gifts of all."
A Wonderful Life continues performances (Eves.: Wed., Thurs. & Sun. 7:30 p.m./ Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Mats.: Thurs., Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.) through December 17, 2006 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343/ online: www.papermill.org/.
A Wonderful Life book and lyrics by Sheldon
Harnick; music by Joe Raposo; directed by James Brennan
Cast (In Order Of Appearance)