The holidays are a time of year when our traditions take center stage. Whether it's hanging Christmas lights, midnight sledding, or arguing about politics over Thanksgiving dinner with your racist uncle, we look forward to our holiday traditions all year long because they're as cozy and comforting as a warm blanket. For theatre companies, a holiday stage production is a common tradition, and there are few as tried-and-true as It's a Wonderful Life, the play (or, depending on which production you're seeing, the musical, radio play, musical radio play, or one man show) based on the 1946 Jimmy Stewart movie about a man who's shown that life is the greatest gift of all through the helpful guidance of a guardian angel. Screen Plays-Rochester's theatre company known for staging theatrical productions of Hollywood gems-is getting a head start on their holiday tradition, showing It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Musical Radio Play over Thanksgiving weekend.

70+ years after its theatrical release, the story of It's a Wonderful Life is surely not a mystery to many. It centers on George Bailey, a man who has so many problems he is thinking about ending it all - on Christmas! As the angels discuss George, we see his life in flashback. As George is about to jump from a bridge, he ends up rescuing his guardian angel Clarence, who then shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn't been for all his good deeds over the years.

This Screen Plays production adds an extra layer of enjoyment, however, by presenting this well-known story in the form of a radio show. If you've never seen a staged radio show before, imagine being in the audience at a recording studio during the 1930's and 40's, when broadcasted dramatic storytelling was the period-equivalent of binge watching Netflix. Folks sat by their radios and raptly listened as voice actors read stories to captivated audiences. In the case of a theatrical radio show, you're a live audience INSIDE the recording studio watching the actors switch from character-to-character, take commercial breaks, and pause for musical intermission. It's a real trip.

This production of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Musical Radio Play features seven actors inhabiting the roles of fedora-wearing 1940's voice actors, who are then playing the voice roles of a whole slew of characters from It's a Wonderful Life; it's sort of a play-within-a-play. A glance at the program might clarify: Jack Locastro is playing voice actor Ace Goodman, who's playing the vocal roles of Announcer, Mr. Gower, Mr. Potter, Joseph, Ernie, Marty, Old Man Collins, and Dr. Campbell. You get the idea.

It might seem confusing or overly-meta, but it's tremendous fun listening to this well-known story while watching the actors continuously switch from character-to-character, often at lightning speed. Particularly impressive is Sean Michael Smith, whose Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood is doing the vocal roles of Bert, Clarence Oddbody, Peter Baily, Sam Wainwright, Uncle Billy, Mr. Martini, Mr. Welch, Tommy, the Sherriff, and Charlie. More than once you'll see him switch between three or four characters within the span of a minute, differentiating them with a change of the voice, the addition of a hat, or the use of a fake moustache. Laura Woodruff's Lily Parma has a few less roles to inhabit, though it's particularly fun to see/hear her switch from sexy and seductive Violet to stern and motherly Mrs. Hatch. Stealing the show is Danny Kincaid Kunz, whose Winston Butterfield is blessed to have to only portray one character, George Bailey, whom he plays to perfection.

Just as impressive as these multi-faceted "voice" actors on stage is the attention to detail that Director/Producer Karen A. Tuccio put into creating the look, feel, and ambiance of a 1940's radio show, complete with live acted-out commercial breaks, a light-up applause sign, an array of noise-making devices, and, most especially, the studio band that provided the music for everything from brief scene-changing interludes to commercial jingles to big vocal numbers.

Screen Play's production of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Musical Radio Play is heartwarming, silly, and a ton of fun. It's playing at Rochester's Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) until November 25th. For tickets and more information, click here.

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From This Author Colin Fleming-Stumpf

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