Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

It's a Wonderful Life
Lyric Arts Main Street Stage
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Christmas of Swing, Little Women, and Annie

The Cast
Photo by Molly Weibel, 1000 Words Photography
Of the many movies associated with Christmas, It's a Wonderful Life is one of my favorites. Its climactic scene, redemption set around a decked-out tree, still gets my tear ducts flowing, even after umpteen viewings. The movie is not really about Christmas, though its message is enhanced by being seen in the context of the goodwill common to the holiday season: that we are all linked together in a community, that we need and must take care of one another, and that the measure of true wealth is taken not at the bank but in our hearts. That message was certainly apt following the end of World War II in 1946, when the film was released, and recent events make it as relevant now as it has ever been.

Doug Rand's adaption of the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling into a stage play is this year's holiday from Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, and like the film, it won my heart. In fact, it is so like the film, with much of the well-remembered dialogue from the movie being spoken verbatim by the live actors on stage, that it has little to do but be well played to win the audience over. Lyric Arts Main Street stage's production does several things very right, but also has some soft spots. In the balance, it is a heartwarming show that makes its mark, but is hard pressed to compete against another spin around with the movie.

One of the best things this production has done is in casting its lead roles. The movie has iconic performance by James Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as his devoted wife Mary, Lionel Barrymore as despicable banker Mr. Potter, and Henry Travers as Clarence, the angel sent to rescue George from the depths of despair. Those great actors of yesteryear made indelible marks, but Raúl Arámbula (George), Eva Gemlo (Mary), Warren Sampson (Potter), and Rick Wyman (Clarence) fully inhabit their characters, bringing them to life as we fondly recall them, and establish a commitment to their story. Arámbula is particularly strong, channeling the awkward, nervous energy along with the intelligence Jimmy Stewart brought to the role, yet making it his own. Gemlo matches his performance, endowing Mary with a winning blend of strength and affection. It helps, too, that the two make a very handsome couple on stage. We know that Sampson's portrayal of Potter is spot on when the audience loudly boos him.

The actors playing less prominent characters all do sturdy work in multiple roles, but are challenged to make the strong impressions that breathe real life into those characters, with Doni Marinos as George's brother Harry and Christy C. Johnson in a variety of women's parts coming out best. In the opening scenes, several young actors play the young George, Mary, Harry and Violet, a flirty girl who grows up to be a flirty—and foundering—woman. Those early scenes, as well as a couple of scenes near the end with George's youngest child, Zuzu, are filmed, shown on screens above the stage set.

The use of those filmed scenes carries with it some risks. The sound in the first of the films clips is fuzzy and the dialog spoken quickly, making it difficult to follow—though of course, fans of the movie will know exactly what is transpiring. But that plays into the greater risk, that watching those filmed bits remind us of the beloved movie we are not watching, rather than establishing the play as an independent experience, to be enjoyed on its own merits.

It's a Wonderful Life shows us George Bailey growing up in a picturesque town called Bedford Falls, where he spins big dreams of travel, adventure, and becoming a builder of great edifices. Fate pushes his dreams aside as he takes the helm of Bailey Building and Loan, the financial institution founded by his father and uncle, that has always looked out for the common man and helped hardworking people keep their homes. Their business is constantly threatened by the greed and avarice of banker Potter, and warding off Potter's attacks propels George into a profound crisis of faith until Clarence arrives to save him, and in doing so, saves Bedford Falls.

Hannah Weinberg-Goerger directs the play with as much fluidity as the frequent scene changes allow, for like the movie, the story moves often from one place to another in Bedford Falls. The most satisfying scenes, in fact, are longer ones between George and Mary, in part due to the caliber of actors Arámbula and Gemlo, but also because they play out for longer stretches and allow us to be absorbed in what feels like real engagement between real people.

The physical production lacks the deep Currier and Ives feel we associate with Bedford Falls, requiring the audience to supplement the period-perfect front porch setting (by scenic designer Greg Vanselow) with their imaginations. Costume designer Rebecca Bernstein, lighting designer Jim Eischen, and sound designer Paul Estby all make solid contributions, and the falling snow makes a lovely effect.

While it's easy enough to acquire a copy of the 1946 movie, or look for one of its annual holiday screenings on television, the magic of live theater, with flesh and blood people becoming characters, creating a story, and radiating emotional energy can make the trip to Lyric Arts Main Street Stage worth your while. That, and the shared experience of laughing, recoiling in dismay, and becoming teary eyed with a room full of other people, all of which are part of building community, gets right to the heart of what It's a Wonderful Life sets out to tell us.

It's a Wonderful Life runs through December 19, 2021, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets from $32.00 - $42.00; seniors (60+) and students with ID: $30.00 - $40.00; For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit

Playwright, Doug Rand, from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling; Director: Scott Ford; Music Director: Hannah Weinberg-Goerger; Scenic Design: Greg Vanselow; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Lighting Design: Jim Eischen; Sound Design: Paul Estby; Props Design: Heather Czywczynski; Intimacy Director: Callie Aho; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Youth Company Manager: Hannah Bakke; Assistant Costume Designer: Rane Oganowski; Stage Manager: Jenna Hyde; Assistant Stage Manager: Sam Goettsche

Cast: Raúl Arámbula (George Bailey), Ainsley Dirkse (Zuzu Bailey), Lois Estell (Ma Bailey, ensemble), Aaron Gaumer (Young George), Eva Gemlo (Mary Hatch Bailey), Grant Hooyer (San Wainwright, ensemble), Christy C. Johnson (Cousin Eustance, ensemble), Cary Kent (Uncle Billy, ensemble), Doni Marinos (Harry Bailey, ensemble), Kayli McIntyre (Violet, ensemble), Lily Meer (Young Mary, Janie), Steve Ramirez (Pa Bailey, ensemble), Warren Sampson (Mr. Potter), Maeve Catherine Stack (Young Violet), Ben Stueve (Young Harry), Rick Wyman (Clarence).