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It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
A Very Adult Holiday Comedy for Our Time

San Jose Stage Company
Review by Jeanie K. Smith

Also see Richard's reviews of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, Arlington, My Beautiful Laundrette and Bebop Baby and Jeanie's reviews of November and Coney Island Christmas


Martin Rojas Dietrich, Allison F. Rich, Will Springhorn, Jr.
and Halsey Varady

How to stage a hit Holiday show: take a wildly popular feel-good movie and adapt it as if it's a fun, period radio play for a live studio audience; cast a handful of superb actors adept at creating different characters; add live sound effects that are fun to watch as well as hear; toss in creative staging and terrific singing; and you just might be lucky enough to approach the excellence that is evident in the current production of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at San Jose Stage. You definitely don't want to miss this one, full of fun and positive pizzazz.

Just in case you've never seen it ...

It's A Wonderful Life, both movie and radio play, concerns the reclamation of George Bailey (played by Will Springhorn Jr.), resident of fictional Bedford Falls in 1945 upstate New York, whose reluctant but good work as leader of the Bailey Building and Loan is suddenly jeopardized by his bumbling Uncle Billy (Kevin Blackton). Eight thousand dollars is missing, it's Christmas Eve, and the local slumlord tycoon Henry Potter (Martin Rojas Dietrich) sees an opportunity to finally get rid of George Bailey and his loathsome do-gooding. When George appeals to Potter for aid staving off the bank examiner, Potter laughingly says, "You're worth more dead than alive." George contemplates following that suggestion, but he's thwarted by Clarence, Angel Second Class (also Dietrich), who must help George through this crisis in order to earn a pair of wings.

The rest, as they say, is the stuff of legend, with whole scenes and quotable quotes making their indelible way into our cultural consciousness for all time, but especially during the winter holiday season when the sentiments and message lovingly remind us to keep our priorities straight. The movie came out in 1946 and made a small splash, but didn't really catch on until it resurfaced in the '70s and '80s. Joe Landry's adaptation into a radio play took shape at Stamford Center for the Arts, Connecticut, in 1996, and its elegant simplicity in staging and retelling the well-known story has enabled theatre companies to put George Bailey in happy competition with Ebenezer Scrooge and Santa Claus.

Director Randall King has assembled an outstanding group of actors, all with fabulous voices and tremendous expressive range. Springhorn plays only George, but gets to age from 12 to 35, and shows great emotional dexterity. Dietrich and Blackton play all the other men of the story, with minimal but inspired touches in vocal inflection and physical demeanor. Halsey Varady plays Mary, George's wife, with sweetness and savvy, and also chimes in for sound effects and song. Allison F. Rich deliciously inhabits town hussy Violet, but also plays Mother Bailey and a number of others. Judith Miller has the daunting task of creating all the sound effects for the show, and also gets to voice the darling Zuzu. They all sing, and dance, and entertain with verve, whether in the story or in the amusing period commercial breaks. Individually or together, they're all perfectly cast and brilliant in their roles.

The production benefits from Michael Palumbo's subtle lighting and flexible set design, and John Koss's excellent sound design that mingles acoustic and augmented music and effects. Period costumes by Stephen Hilliard add nice comic touches and serve well for character transitions. Director King adroitly moves actors around enough to keep visual interest and suggest character interaction.

Put all together, it's supremely entertaining and enjoyable, and sure to satisfy your yen for something Wonderful this holiday season.

It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling; presented by San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First Street, San Jose; through December 22. Tickets $25 - $50, available at www.thestage.org or at 408-283-7142.


Photo: Dave Lepori


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith



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