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Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

It's a Wonderful Life
Manatee Players
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

The Cast
Photo Courtesy of Manatee Players
There may be a decent musical to be based on It's a Wonderful Life, the classic film by Frank Capra, but the version with book and lyrics by Keith Ferguson and music by Bruce Greer is not it. When first announced, I thought Manatee Players was producing the version with a score by Sheldon Harnick (lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof) and Joe Raposo (all your favorite "Sesame Street" songs, including "Sing (Sing a Song)"). Those songs are infinitely better than the ones in this version, which are not musically interesting and the lyrics banal at their best. At several important moments in the story, during or after a major song, I found myself asking "what if they had written a terrific song here?"

When taking a perfect story to a different medium it is usually a good idea to change focus a little, to better fit the new habitat. Mr. Ferguson has not done that; he attempts to reproduce the Frank Capra, Albert Hackett, and Frances Goodrich screenplay verbatim, only leaving space to insert the musical numbers.

It is impossible to truly judge performances in this production. Before curtain, Producing Artistic Director Rick Kerby appeared and asked the audience's indulgence. A flu epidemic had spread through the cast and two performers were sent home with high fevers, their roles covered by people not expecting to have to do so, at the very last minute, but the show must go on.

I've recently seen Bradley Keville in two leading roles, one non-musical and here as George Bailey. I think he is a little more effective in musicals, with his pleasant baritone singing voice. Still, I don't think he is quite up to the demand of such a prominent central role. His best scenes are when he is sharing the stage with Shannon Wright as George's wife Mary or Jim Olson as angel, second class, Clarence. Ms. Wright dominates the production with her warmth and fine singing, but oh how I wish the authors had provided a better duet than "If You Want the Moon" with some very cliched lyrics. Ditto for Mr. Olson, who brings some whimsical tones to Clarence and almost scores in his duet with George, "Second Class Angel." The song is an attempt at a classic soft shoe and all through I was wishing that they would switch to "Those Were the Good Old Days" from Damn Yankees (which will be on stage at this theater come spring).

Mark Eichorn as Mr. Potter is properly villainous, but he cannot make much out of his big song, "Go Ahead and Run." One of the fun aspects of community theater is seeing families at work together. In this production the entire Hernandez family appear: Father Conrad is Ernie; Mother MariAnne is Cousin Tilly; and children Maia and Zander are two of George and Mary's children.

Director Kelly Burnette is unable to give this musical wings that are just not in the script and score. Choreographer Kevin Steele does what he can, but the ensemble is not chock full of Manatee Players' first string performers. Music direction is credited to Heather Weiskerger and Allison Rekow. Pre-recorded tracks are in use, which caused more than a little dicey singing on opening night, always a hazard. Live accompaniment is much easier to stay in tune with, even a solo piano.

Sets by Karle Murdock and costumes by Tim Beltly are not the strongest work seen on MPAC stages recently. Lighting design by Patrick Bedell is professionally done. Projection design by Karle Murdock and Jay Poppe is perhaps the strongest technical element of this production.

Even though It's a Wonderful Life is not one of Manatee Player's strongest production, the story is a classic one and might be a decent way to introduce children to the wonderful world of live theater. Also on the boards at MPAC is Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some) in the Kiwanis Theatre.

It's a Wonderful Life runs through December 22, 2019, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit

George Bailey: Bradley Keville
Mary Hatch Bailey: Shannon Wright
Clarence: Jim Olson
Mr. Henry F. Potter: Mark Eichorn
Harry Bailey: Caleb Dobson
Uncle Billy: Rick Pelton
Cousin Tilly: Marianne Hernandez
Violet: Maddie Cashen
Sam Wainwright: Raejan Armstrong
Bert: Jay Bowman
Ernie: Conrad Hernandez
Joe: Jack Watts
Pa Bailey: Peter Ruscoe
Ma Bailey: Gayle Foster
Mr. Martini: Peter James
Mrs. Martini: Sharon Bartley
Mr. Gower: Jay Bowman
Ruth Bailey: Olivia Hilliard
Mayor: Dennis Stull
Mr. Carter: Peter Ruscoe
Sheriff: Jack Watts
Shirley/Ensemble Dancer: Laureana Kennedy
Secretary/Ensemble Dancer: Ayla Mulock
Potter's Goon: Darius Porter
Cousin Tilly Understudy: Laureana Kennedy
Bailey Kids:
Janie: Ciana Bostock
Pete: Noah Barbara
Tommy-Zander Hernandez
Zuzu: Maia Hernandez