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BWW Review: A WONDERFUL LIFE By the Fireside

The Bailey Family.
Photo provided by Fireside Theater

Christmas in my childhood home involved several traditions: adorning the tree with my mother's crystal ornaments, meticulously setting up the Christmas town figurines, and watching Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life.

The story is simple and inspiring. George Bailey, who had always worked for the benefit of others while avoiding the clutches of corporate life, loses his hope in the world. Suicidal, George is confronted by a guardian angel named Clarence. Clarence, wanting to finally earn his wings, helps George to see that his life is important and the world would not be better off if he hadn't been born.

It's a heartwarming tale that has a cultic following and needs a versatile cast to retell it.

Luckily The Fireside has such a cast to undertake the adaptation.

David Sajewich, recently seen as Chad in Fireside's production of All Shook Up, is an endearing George Bailey. He connects genuinely with the cast members around him. His candor in the iconic role brings the classic character to life without attempting to mimic the original George - James Stewart. Sajewich sets the pace for the show with his short opening number "George's Prayer" which reveals George's vulnerability from the get go.

Fireside newcomer Skye Bronfenbrenner brought the extra charm into the Bailey family as George's wife Mary. Bronfenbrenner's polished sound could lighten the load for any weary holiday humbug. Her duets with Sajewich light up the space in a way that no other moments in the show can do - their stage chemistry is palpable.

Saving the day with comic relief throughout the triumphs and downturns of George's past is Michael Haws (a Fireside veteran) as Clarence. Though Haws does not get as much stage time as one would have imagined, he makes the most out of every moment he is given. With a stoic Michael (Steve Watts) leading the way, the delightful bumbling from Haws does not fail to cheer the spirit.

The major dilemma with the show itself (and not the production under the direction of Ed Flesch) is that it is a musical that tries much too hard to sound endearing. With lyrics and book by Sheldon Harnick and music by Joe Raposo, A Wonderful Life does not translate well as a piece of musical theater. Showtunes often do something to move the story along, but the songs in this particular musical rarely do. There are a handful that move the plot forward while the rest appear to be placeholders. Although the songs seem fine at the start, they begin to sound the same. With repetitious lyrics, the music fails to inspire the soul and there are not very many 'a-ha' moments during the tunes.

The real 'a-ha' moments are created by the cast and Flesch's direction. They move beyond the pitfalls of the text and make the festive show their own.

It's a Wonderful Life is a holiday classic. It is arguably difficult to compete with the story that audiences are already familiar with, but the production at Fireside takes that challenge head on. Though the musical itself is far from perfect, the versatile cast runs with it. It may not be the replica of the film, but the show certainly is the classic that this cast can call their own.

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From This Author Amanda Finn

Amanda lives in Madison, WI and joined BWW in the spring of 2014. She has relished every moment spent in a theatre since then. She (read more...)