BWW Review: A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Holiday Sentiment to Chaffin's Barn
George Bailey's story is a universal one, so much so that some 70 years after the film treatment of It's A Wonderful Life debuted, the tale of an upstanding citizen faced with failure and ruin, has become one of the most beloved holiday-season tales of all time. But the initial reaction of movie-goers to the film, although not nearly so dire as some cinema historians would have you believe, is considered one of the best-reviewed movies of all time.
Thus, it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone within the sound of my clicking keyboard that George and his family - Mary, Harry, Zuzu and all the rest of the Baileys - have become favorite characters in any number of stage adaptations that punctuate the theater schedule at this time of year. Case in point: the sparkling and beautifully cast rendition of A Wonderful Life, the musical with a libretto by Sheldon Harnick and music by Joe Raposo, now onstage at Nashville's iconic Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre.
The musical, though at times over-written and perhaps too long by half an hour at least, has much to recommend it to audiences: the themes of abiding friendship, familial support and the resilience of the human spirit are just as potent now as they ever were (perhaps more so now in these troubled time in which we live). The score is lovely and lush, even if it's hard to recall a particular melody while walking through an "enjoyed it" line at Chaffin's Barn that is filled to overflowing with much-loved friends and inspiring performers.
Still and all, the story's universality ensures that every audience member - even the most cynical and sardonic among them - will leave the theater with an especially warm holiday message resonating in their hearts, images of immensely talented people making their way through a sometimes treacly, though always engaging, tale that epitomizes the tenor of Christmastime deftly and convincingly.
Starring Sawyer Wallace and Lindsey Mapes Duggin (both relative newcomers to the Barn stage (although Wallace has been onstage there a handful of times and Duggin was last onstage as a 14-year-old actress in Annie Get Your Gun), as George Bailey and Mary Hatch Bailey, with Nashville stage favorite Tim Fudge (who's been a household theatrical name in these parts for a couple of decades, at least) making a much-welcomed return to the Barn stage after far-too-long an absence, A Wonderful Life features an ensemble of winning performers who bring the show to life under the direction of Martha Wilkinson, with spirited and energetic choreography by Everett Tarlton (who pulls double-duty as Bert, the cop) and strong musical direction by the equally skillful Fudge.
After a spectacular year of growth at Chaffin's Barn, the theatrical entity that's provided countless opportunities in its 51 years to scores of artists, techinicians and actors, A Wonderful Life represents so much more than an impressively staged musical theater offering. Rather, it represents the phoenix-like rise of the company, the venue, the edifice known around here as THE BARN, under the leadership of Norma Luther (who took ownership in January 2017) that has resulted in bigger audiences (the theater's bounty of musical offerings this year have played to largely sold-out houses), more satisfying productions (and better food) and a grander spirit of achievement in a matter of months.
More importantly, perhaps, what is most striking to me - a man whose first trip to THE BARN came some 40 years ago, while I was in college, to see a rollicking Sunday matinee performance of See How They Run - is how vital the success of Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre is to the overall well-being of Nashville's theater community as a whole. THE BARN in 2017 (and for the next 50 years, at least, according to Luther) continues to provide an oftentimes unhearalded training ground for up-and-coming artists, technicians and actors, as has been the case since the theater opened in 1966. While the primary mission may be to entertain audiences, sate their appetites with a groaning board of Southern delicacies and to keep 'em laughing along the way, no one can never discount the importance of THE BARN as a place where careers are launched, dreams are realized and creative effort is nurtured, recognized and rewarded.
Just as certainly as so many of our favorite local actors have started their professional careers at the big red barn on Highway 100 west of downtown Nashville - Mike Edwards, Richard Daniel, Brian Russell, Pam Atha, Mike Montgomery, Nate Eppler, Martha Wilkinson, Rona Carter, Nancy Allen, Craig Hartline, Brian Best, Joy Tilley Perryman and so many more just like them who will always have a place in my heart of hearts - so, too, will THE BARN allow a new generation of actors - like A Wonderful Life's LaDarra Jackal, Jenny Light (and her brood of preternaturally precocious children), Jairus Maples, Bradley Moore, Joy Todd, Melissa Silengo, Gerold Oliver, Chase Miller, Nick Spencer, Braden Wahl, Alex Pinero, Matthew Hayes Hunter and company - to foster a growing fan base among the theater's patrons and to build careers possibly as impressive as Tony Award-winner Cherry Jones, the Paris, Tennessee, native whose first professional gig was on the very same stage upon which they sing, dance and generally cavort to the adulation of the people surrounding them.
And that is perhaps what is most significant about A Wonderful Life - it offers a multi-generational glimpse into what Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre has come to mean to legions of audiences and actors for more than 50 years, as well as giving us a view into the general health of the local theater scene for years to come. That, quite frankly, is reason enough to make a trip to THE BARN this holiday season (that is, if you can score tickets since virtually every show is nearing sell-out status) for any of the trio of productions that will fill the schedule through the end of 2017.
But before I get sucked into a sentimental and maudlin consideration of all the things that Chaffin's Barn has meant to me, personally, or to the theater community, attention is due to the superb pairing by Wilkinson of Wallace and Duggin as the leads in A Wonderful Life. The two actors are well-matched and their onstage chemistry is palpable, ensuring the impact of the now-familiar tale to elicit the proper response, and their musical moments onstage are lovely. Fudge is delightful as the sweet-spirited Clarence, the angel second class endeavoring to earn his wings, and the audience's reaction to his performance on opening night was impressive, if not downright thunderous during curtain calls.
As forgetful Uncle Billy, Craig Hartline's performance is refreshingly genuine and completely unexpected, creating a persona that is tremendously effective.
Among the supporting cast, Wilkinson's ensemble does their utmost to deliver the goods, with especially notable performances from Brian Best and LaDarra Jackal in a variety of different roles; Melissa Silengo turns in a spirited performance as Violet Bick; and Chase Miller very nearly steals the show out from under the leading players with his superb Sam Wainwright.
Dann Childers conducts his six-member band with confidence, providing the onstage action with a great sense of musicality that transcends the sometimes overwrought score.
Wilkinson's direction makes good use of the intimate environs of the theater, moving her actors about skillfully and adroitly, while Tarlton's high-energy choreography keeps the various parts moving along with near-clockwork precision. Likewise, Fudge's musical direction makes the most of his cast's talents as they perform the Raposo score.
Jamie Lynn Scott's costumes are, as we've come to expect over the past season, beautiful evocations of the time period - the show takes place the years between 1928 and 1945 - and Daniel DeVault's lighting design shows that there are still a thing or two we haven't yet seen in his Barn bag of lighting tricks.
A Wonderful Life. Adapted from the Frank Capra film It's A Wonderful Life. Book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Music by Joe Raposo. Directed by Martha Wilkinson. Musical direction by Tim Fudge. Choreography by Everett Tarlton. Produced by The Team at Chaffin's. Through December 23. For reservations, call (615) 646-9977 or go online to www.chaffinsbarntheatre.com. Running time: 3 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).