BWW Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Sweet Nostalgia to Portland Stage
In remounting playwright Joe Landry's live radio play version of the beloved classic IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Portland Stage serves up a family friendly show filled with all the sweetness and nostalgia that make the holidays memorable. The production, directed and designed by Anita Stewart, tells the tale of George Bailey with warmth and humor, underscoring effectively the messages of kindness, gratitude, and integrity without ever becoming saccharine.
There are many stage versions of the 1946 Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart, but Landry's is one of the better renderings. By framing the story with the conceit of a live radio play, Landry adds a layer of visible reality to balance the sentimental fantasy aspects of the story, and he reduces the characters to five principal actors who play a variety of roles in George Bailey's story, thereby allowing for some virtuoso performances. Moreover, the period radio ambiance with sound effects and corny commercials further adds to the overall effect.
Stewart sets the intimate tone for the piece by letting actors appear on stage in a half hour pre-show warm up that creates a cozy bond with the audience. She moves the work briskly through its paces and uses the ten-person children's ensemble to flesh out the action, fulfill the sound and prop requirements, and add some charm with their caroling. Her set with its bold blue flooring and brick walls effectively recreates the look of a 1940s radio studio. Kathleen P. Brown's costumes favor warm-toned period dresses for the women and three-piece suits for the men, with school children in skirts, trousers and sweaters. Actors use a wide array of accessories to change their looks as they move from character to character. Lighting designer Gregg Carville gives the work a warm, nostalgic glow, and sound designer Seth Asa Sengel rises admirably to the challenge of creating a sound palette that reflects the dynamics of the radio studio and all the requisite story-telling effects. Shane Van Vliet serves ably as the onstage music director, conducting the children's ensemble in carols and providing underscoring music for the drama. Myles C. Hatch anchors the production as stage manager.
The cast proves themselves versatile, each taking on multiple parts and often crossing genders in characters. Steve Brady plays announcer Freddie Filmore, who narrates the story in a resonant voice and also portrays an imposing head angel Joseph, a crotchety Mr. Gilmore, and an unreliable but loveable Uncle Billy. Dustin Tucker, as the comic actor Harry "Jazzbo" Heywood, shines in a number of rapid-fire character changes from the tough talking cab driver to the penny-pinching Scotsman to the war hero Harry Bailey. But it is as Clarence, the angel who must save George Bailey and win his own wings, that he gives the most heartfelt performance - winsome and wise and just a little goofy. Courtney Moors as Lana Sherwood successfully differentiates a series of Bedford Falls women, as well as a humorous take on the Italian barkeep Mr. Martini, while Lauren Orkus, as Sally Appelwhite, does an admirable job of contrasting the stalwart Mary Hatch Bailey, George's wife, and his nemesis, Mr. Potter. Ross Cowan, as actor Jake Laurents, handles the single role of George Bailey with a naturalness, simplicity and genuineness that is both credible and touching. The cast is rounded out with a ten-person children's ensemble with the Red and Green Ensembles alternating performances.
At the December 8 matinee, it was heartening to see Portland Stage's offering American Sign Language interpretation for a significant portion of the audience.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE retains its meaning and impact decades after the tale was first told, and it seems all the more relevant today in a world desperately in need of decency and kindness. An admirable choice for Portland Stage's holiday offering!
Photos courtesy of Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE runs from November 29-december 24, 2019 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland, ME www.portlandstage.org 207-774-0465