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Chicago by John Olson

A Wonderful Life
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

It all sounds a bit too logical and easy to be a good idea - adapting Frank Capra's holiday film classic It's a Wonderful Life into a stage musical. For any of us who remember the years when the film, having fallen into the public domain, seemed to be shown on TV during the holiday season at least seven or eight times a day, we might not expect to find new insights from another take on the story. Sheldon Harnick's musicalization of the film, while faithful to Capra's screenplay, fiddles around with the elements of the story just enough to give a few new perspectives.

The mere act of allowing the characters to sing their inner thoughts puts more focus on their dreams, desires and motivations. Even though the film's James Stewart, always so great at wearing his characters' hearts on their sleeves may not have needed music to convey a higher sense of emotion, we get a little deeper into the head of protagonist George Bailey when he's singing about his excitement at his plans for touring Europe or his attraction to the lovely Mary Hatch. Simply giving a few songs to the Donna Reed character of Mary Bailey fleshes her out enough to make Mary a more interesting and satisfying character. A song ("One of the Lucky Ones") for George's father, Tom Bailey, nicely sets up the values espoused by the story, and what could be more Capra-esque than an anthem to the thrill of first-time home ownership ("A Home of Your Own")?

Harnick's book is quite stageworthy, and as directed here by L. Walter Stearns finds stage equivalents to the film's cinematic techniques; the townspeople form a Greek chorus at times, while angel-in-training Clarence and his supervisor Angel Joseph look on from above the stage, flanked by two "wings" of twinkly heavenly star lights. Harnick was the perfect writer for this job - A Wonderful Life's fictional town of Bedford Falls is not so different from the village of Anatevka in Harnick's Fiddler on the Roof, another small community just trying to hang on amidst historic change. The battle between good and evil among the ranks of the powerful has precedent in Harnick's Fiorello!, as well.

Harnick used the perspective of the 40 years between the premieres of the film and this stage musical to give the piece some added resonance. The theme of young people leaving small towns has special poignancy for us now, knowing how many a Bedford Falls has gone the way of Anatevka since the end of World War II. And how could Capra have known that the post-war era just beyond the close of his story and release of his film would in fact become a period of unprecedented prosperity for the common man? After these characters (and the American public) survive the horrors of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, the Great Depression, and World War II, our knowledge of the peace and prosperity to come in the 1950s makes the happy ending even more satisfying. (For that matter, how could Harnick have known in 1986 that the November elections of 2006 would be viewed by many as another victory against the Mr. Potters of the U.S.?) Porchlight has themed its 2006-07 season "The American Experience - Set to Music" and they make a good case for A Wonderful Life as an historical piece as much as a holiday story.

Stearns has wrapped this up in a handsome, perfectly cast and nicely performed production. His performers show reverence to the actors who originated the characters on screen without attempting to imitate them, and his direction establishes a tone which respects the sentiment of the film without the mawkishness found at points of the movie. David Heimann makes a strong and energetic George Bailey, wisely without the "aw-shucks"-iness of Jimmy Stewart. Jess Godwin is again a charmer and in strong voice as George's wife Mary. The supporting players in the character roles are a delight, starting with the menacing Mr. Potter of the physically imposing and big, big voiced Peter Pohlhammer. Doug Long, as the ineffectual Uncle Billy never stoops to caricature and establishes a good deal of sympathy for a character that was a bit of a clown in the movie. Similarly, Vincent Lonergan finds the charm in the angel Clarence without pushing his cuteness too far.

The ensemble is solid in its vocals (music direction by Eugene Dizon) and in executing the attractive choreography by Matt Raftery. A dreamlike mood and the historical periods are established effectively by Kurt Sharp's unit set, Theresa Ham's costumes and the lighting design of Julian Pike.

The music by the late Joe Raposo, composer of "Sing" and other songs for TV's Sesame Street is accessible enough, with a traditional structure and easy hooks. He doesn't consistently capture a period feel, though, and some of the numbers have rhythms and harmonies that feel downright anachronistic. Still, the sweetness and heart of his music have just the right tone for the piece and provide a serviceable setting for Harnick's heartfelt lyrics.

The emotions of Capra's movie characters are intense enough that they certainly don't demand to be set to music. They're quite evident from the spoken dialogue only. Still, the depth of their feelings make the characters right at home on a musical theater stage. Whether your interest lies in a repeat visit to the familiar folks of Bedford Falls, or a look at a lost musical by one of the greats of Broadway's Golden Age, A Wonderful Life is worth a visit.

A Wonderful Life runs through December 31 at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or from the Theatre Building box office (773-327-5252). For more information, visit www.porchlighttheatre.com.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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