The celebrations that pile up at Christmastime, when we think of faith, family and friends, all deliver the warm comfort of familiarity in a cold, dark season.
We feel it when we open that big box of holiday decorations and pull out the much-loved ornaments. And for company, anyone can turn on the television that's as big as the front door, and welcome in old friends like Rudolph and Ralphie, or those partners on opposite sides of spiritual awakening, tight-fisted Scrooge and George Bailey of Bedford Falls.
This December, Road Less Traveled Productions gives George Bailey another kind of remake, lifting him out of his black & white cinematic frame onto the stage at Shea's 710 Theatre, in full holiday color for a bright and clever radio play version of "It's a Wonderful Life."
It's the 1940s and the cast is dressed to the nines, courtesy of costume designer Maura Simonds Price, for a live radio production before an audience of what was then a brand new Christmas story. Host Freddie Filmore (Anthony Alcocer) steps up in his tux to introduce the performers in this show-within-a-show, including Miss Ohio of 1943 Sally Applewhite (Kelly Copps), who performs the part of Mary Bailey, and Jake Laurents (Steve Copps) who becomes George. Charmane Chi as Lana Sherwood is a true platinum blonde "lady in red" as she voices Bedford Falls's fallen woman Violet and both Baileys' mothers and daughters (that includes Zuzu), and Fisher, as Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood, is our angel, Clarence,
Philip Farugia, who also provides live music for the show, steps away from the instruments from time to time for key minor roles, like Mr. Gower the pharmacist, and Alcocer's "Freddie Filmore" picks up Clarence's senior angel and the wicked, grasping banker Mr. Potter.
They all get credit for giving the characters their own spin without straying into cognitive dissonance from the film. For instance, Steve Copps doesn't try to imitate Jimmy Stewart's voice, but hangs on to his earnestness; Kelly Copps's Mary Bailey is bright and even more confident than Donna Reed's version, and Fisher voices Clarence with a sincere gravitas, with less befuddlement than he has in the movie.
Chi hits the small-town accents of all her women with the precision of a hat pin, and Alcocer's Potter even out growls Lionel Barrymore. (The one voice that is dead-on from the film is Alcocer's imitation of Sheldon Leonard as Nick the bartender.)
Also starring: the way they produce the "radio" sound effects, including celestial chimes, clinking drink glasses, stomping feet and Kelly Copps' ridiculously funny assignment to recreate a sled going into a pond and Clarence jumping in the river. Someone get that woman a towel!
Katie Menke is credited with the sound design, with Sarah Foote as stage manager and props by Sam Crystal. I'm not sure who is responsible for coming up with the prop Freddie uses to make Potter's squeaky wheelchair, but props to whoever it was.
Caveats: Those who prefer a half-time stretch should know that the show is an hour and 40 minutes without intermission. And, while the off-microphone activities of the radio cast are diverting, they aren't a show in themselves. This is a live-stage-radio-play for people who love the movie. Trying to gauge whether it makes sense for people who haven't seen the movie is nearly impossible if you already have the film imprinted on your brain.
Joe Landry follows the film in his adaptation, and director John Hurley, with production manager Hasheen DeBerry and set designer Lou Iannone, doesn't toss in any curve balls. They do have a little fun with the radio spots that promote the play's real sponsors, and with the APPLAUSE sign, for those who need the hint.
It's a fine and festive tribute to the film, and a lovely reminder of what it really takes to be "the richest man in town."
"It's a Wonderful Life"
3 stars (out of four)
The beloved Frank Capra classic comes to the stage as a radio play by Road Less Traveled Productions. At Shea's 710 Theatre, 710 Main St., through Dec. 17.