Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's recent reviews of Walter Cronkite Is Dead, Barrymore and Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas

Michael James Reed (center) and Cast
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life is on TV every December, but I never watch it. I have long had the terrible suspicion that we are indeed living in the darkened world where the movie's hero, George Bailey, never was born. And, whenever you put a book or a movie on stage, it's shockingly more immediate. But, as live theatre, it blooms into a deeply gratifying experience in It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis this holiday season.

Joe Landry adapted the 1946 movie in 1996, and now there's a case of post traumatic stress disorder in the plot for George, or rather for the actor playing George (the fictional Jake Laurents) in the radio play on stage in the mid-1940s. Each of those two characters gains powerful impact thanks to real-life actor Michael James Reed. And thanks to the quietly dazzling direction of Kate Bergstrom.

Mr. Reed's fictional actor Laurents is just back from a grisly experience in World War II (although, in the familiar story, both in the movie and here as well, the man he plays, George Bailey, stays home, having been declared 4-F due to a partial hearing loss). But then, just as the radio play commences, everything stops. The stage goes dark and Laurents is isolated in a cold white spotlight, suffering a silent, cognitive break.

A sense of anguish fills the theater as snow falls on his shoulders. Laurents is already standing atop that icy bridge in the dark, and ready to jump–100 minutes before George (Jimmy Stewart in the film) contemplates his own watery death. But then the lights come up, and the light-hearted radio play begins, albeit with this new, darker undertone. We are back in the recording studio and diving into some deliriously comical "theatre of the mind," but with a secret in the back of our minds, and our sympathies sucking us in.

What they used to call "shell shock" proves to be the dash of cold hard reality the show needs in the present day, when institutions like the original movie's Bailey Brothers Building and Loan are virtually extinct, and the potential loss of it might seem to be of dubious import. And, with those new PTSD interludes, the radio play becomes a play-within-a-play. And George's stunning "never was born" scenes in the final 30 minutes (with him hearing voices in the dark) becomes the play-within-a-play-within-a-play. Confusing to describe, but it makes for a great show.

Mr. Reed is surrounded by local stars including Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis, and Carmen Garcia, along with Chicago actress (and St. Louis native) Melissa Harlow as a delightful Mary Bailey on stage. An-Lin Dauber designed a great Christmas party out of a radio studio set, as well as the charming costumes, to go with a script and players who are consistently a joy to watch. The occasional dramatic music, which is not credited, sounds like it came from Bernard Herrmann's score to the film North by Northwest.

DeAnté Bryant is excellent as Clarence, the angel hoping to do a good deed and get some wings. Eric Dean White is the narrator (who also voices some nostalgic local radio commercials) and is elsewhere harrowing as George's Uncle Billy, the absent-minded bookkeeper. J. Samuel Davis is great as both Joseph the senior angel and as his evil opposite number, rich old Mr. Potter, who seeks to destroy the Building and Loan, his only competitor in the housing market in the mythical town of Bedford Falls. Carmen Garcia has several (usually) comical, but always distinct, roles. And Aria Maholchic is subtly heartbreaking as Violet Bick.

All the performers are triple or quadruple cast in their roles in the course of the play. There's lots of movement and old-timey sound effects, and most of the performances are full of comic twists and turns. Except for that long, skin-crawling, never-been-born section–which is far worse than anything Ebenezer Scrooge could ever dream up.

"No man is a failure who has friends," is the explicit message of the original movie written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with Frank Capra. But you could just as easily say that a life of small, constructive gestures may pay off handsomely when all is said and done.

Finally, after a breathless two hours and fifteen minutes, we take wing ourselves, completely changed. And back to the world that we were born to.

It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play runs through December 23, 2023, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Loretto-Hilton theater complex, 130 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit

DeAnté Bryant*, J. Samuel Davis*, Carmen Garcia*, Jailyn Genyse, Melissa Harlow*, Daisy Held, Aria Maholchic, Michael James Reed*, TJ Staten, Jr., Eric Dean White*

Production Staff:
Director: Kate Bergstrom
Scenic & Costume Design: An-Lin Dauber
Lighting Designer: Christina Watanabe
Sound/Foley Designer: Michael Costagliola
Wig Designer: Dennis Milam Bensie
Associate Costume Designer: Jordan Fell
Assistant Lighting Designer: Sam Cox
Associate Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner
Music Director: Ron McGowan
Dialect Coach: Jimmy Kieffer
Production Stage Manager: Anna Baranski*
Production Stage Manager: Emilee Buchheit*
Assistant Stage Manager: Sarah Luedloff*
Production Assistant: Kentrell Jamison
Webster Assistant Director: Amalia Perez Lam

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association