Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

It's a Wonderful Life! A Live Radio Play
Prince Music Theater

Collin Maier, Jered McLenigan, Rachel Brennan, Tom McCarthy, Jennifer Page and Pete Pryor
The Prince Music Theater's contribution to the Christmas season is It's a Wonderful Life! A Live Radio Play—a pale, pointless echo of one of the best movies ever made. Some talented actors try hard to bring the classic tale to life, but the obvious strain they go through in pulling heartstrings makes this a rather cheerless affair.

The conceit is that we're in a radio studio in 1946 as a cast of five performs all the parts in a dramatization of the about-to-be-released Frank Capra film. The problem isn't with the story, which still holds up well; the climactic sequence—in which the everyman George Bailey finds out just how much "one man's life touches so many others"—is still moving, and the banking crisis that propels the plot is scarily relevant in these troubled times. But this scaled-down version just doesn't have the same dramatic impact as the film. Director Barry McNabb's production never loses a sense of stiff formality that keeps the audience from connecting with the characters. As a result, scenes that are touching on film seem corny and melodramatic onstage. The show's best moments are long dialogue scenes taken nearly word-for-word from the movie, but recited by actors holding scripts; why someone thought this would be interesting to watch onstage for nearly two hours is a mystery.

In an attempt to create a nostalgic mood, the cast also performs commercials for local Philadelphia businesses (including the late, lamented department store Wanamaker's), plus renditions of holiday standards like "Winter Wonderland" and "White Christmas." Despite some impeccable jazzy harmonies, the songs seem as mannered as the rest of the show. It all contributes to an unconvincing, forced nostalgia that makes the whole enterprise seem even more artificial.

The cast can't be blamed. Pete Pryor is nicely earnest as George, and Jennifer Page gives a lot of sweetness and warmth to the role of George's wife Mary. (Actually, Pryor and Page are playing the radio actors who, in turn, play George and Mary; Page's character is actually "Sally Applewhite, Miss Pennsylvania 1943.") And the other three actors (Rachel Brennan, Tom McCarthy and Jered McLenigan) are marvelous as they switch from voice to voice to play the entire population of Bedford Falls. But, while it's fun to see McLenigan have an argument with himself (as he plays both Uncle Billy and Mr. Potter), the novelty gets tired pretty quickly.

Despite the cast's best efforts, there are no sugarplum-inducing visions here; instead, you'll have visions of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed dancing in your head. Why don't you just rent the movie instead? The Prince's adaptation is cute, but It's a Wonderful Life is a timeless movie because it's more than just "cute."

It's a Wonderful Life! A Live Radio Play runs through Sunday, December 21, 2008. Ticket prices range from $30 to $45, and may be purchased by calling UpStages at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at

It's a Wonderful Life! A Live Radio Play
By Joe Landry
Adapted from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling
Directed by Barry McNabb
Music Direction... Collin Maier
Scenic Design ... Liz Burow
Costume Design ... Maxine Johnson
Lighting Design ... Shelley Hicklin
Sound Design ... Jeff Lorenz
Production Stage Manager ... Michael Andrew Rodgers

Rachel Brennan ... Lana Sherwood
Tom McCarthy ... Max McCarthy
Jered McLenigan ... Freddie Filmore
Jennifer Page ... Sally Applewhite
Pete Pryor ... Jake Laurents
On Piano and Vocals:
Collin Maier ... Hank "Jazzbo" Heywood
At the sound effects table and on the Theremin:
Jeff Lorenz ... Peter Matopeia

Photo: N Lee Kathan

-- Tim Dunleavy

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