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BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Emotional and Heartfelt IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Magic to the Holiday Season

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Patrick Cassidy Makes His Studio Tenn Directorial Debut With Christmas Classic

BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Emotional and Heartfelt IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Magic to the Holiday Season
Gerold Oliver, Mariah Parris, Matthew Carlton, Caleb Shore and Galen Crawley,
with Mitch Beard at the piano in Studio Tenn's It's A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play.

During its initial release in 1946, the film version of Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life met with lackluster reviews and tepid box office receipts. And although it wasn't as reviled as some cinema historians would have you believe (it was, after all, nominated for five Academy Awards in 1947, including "best picture"), it wasn't until years later that the movie entered the pop culture zeitgeist as the beloved holiday season classic we now can see on our home screens at any given moment.

In the 75 years since it premiere on December 20, 1946, It's A Wonderful Life has justifiably been venerated as one of the best films ever made and it is considered as the "most inspirational American film" ever produced, according to the American Film Institute.

The story of George Bailey and his search for meaning during the Christmas holidays resonates with virtually everyone. So pervasive is It's A Wonderful Life, so universal are its themes, that it has provided inspiration for countless stage adaptations, from straight plays to musicals, and one need look no further than local theater listings to realize the popularity of the story every holiday season.

BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Emotional and Heartfelt IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Magic to the Holiday Season
Mariah Parris

Studio Tenn, the Franklin-based professional theater company, staged a well-received and critically lauded production of It's A Wonderful Life in 2014. Now, some seven years later, artistic director Patrick Cassidy returns to the timeless and contemplative story of love, loss and redemption for his first directing assignment with the company to deliver what is, without doubt, the most heartfelt and gratifying iteration of It's A Wonderful Life that we've encountered during our many years spent reviewing theater, criticizing its shortcomings and praising its accomplishments.

Frankly, we were pleasantly caught off-guard by the emotional impact of Cassidy's version of It's A Wonderful Life, which is a captivating take on Joe Landry's adaptation of the film script (by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling, after a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern that was loosely based on Dickens' A Christmas Carol), styled as a "live radio play," performed by five actors who play the many roles of the citizens of fictional Bedford Falls, New York, the provincial small town in which the story takes place. Cassidy's staging, however, is anything but the expected - and static - scene of actors standing around microphones, reading from a script. Instead, there is as much heart and passion to be found as one might expect from any fully realized production of the play. Perhaps even more so.

Cassidy has very cleverly reconfigured the piece to be presented as a radio play presented in 1947 on local Franklin radio station - WAKM, 950 on the AM radio dial - adding dialogue that rings authentic of the era and which is certain to gain a reaction from the play's hometown audience. In less capable hands, this new conceit could be considered too cute by half, yet Cassidy and his ensemble very confidently bring the show to life with a spirit heretofore unrealized.

BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Emotional and Heartfelt IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Magic to the Holiday Season
Gerold Oliver and Caleb Shore

It's almost like magic how instantly the cast transports their audiences back to the post-war era in a small Southern downtown setting, there's snow falling outside and the actors are gathering on Christmas Eve to perform for a "coast to coast" broadcast of It's A Wonderful Life that somehow encapsulates the wonder of the season and the power of live theater to transcend the physical trappings of its venue.

And, oh, what a gorgeous venue has been created by scenic designer Andrew Cohen inside The Factory at Franklin's Jamison Hall: it's an eye-poppingly gorgeous Art Deco-inspired radio studio of the late 1940s, with the snow-laden streets of downtown Franklin framed by an expansive picture window as the story unfolds. Beautifully and atmospherically illuminated by Darren Levin's lighting design, Studio Tenn's It's A Wonderful Life is a visually stunning masterpiece of theatrical art. Credit for the period-perfect costumes goes to Lauren Terry, with Constance Hill styling the women's Vogue-worthy wigs. Danny Northup's sound design is impeccable and credit is due the cast members who provide the sound effects for the radio play.

BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Emotional and Heartfelt IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Magic to the Holiday Season
Matthew Carlton

The production's physical trappings notwithstanding, it is Cassidy's wonderfully engaging cast who truly bring the story to life with vigor and verve, with a palpable intensity that drives home the meaning of George Bailey's story with such finesse that its emotional impact comes over you almost unawares from the very first lines delivered from the iconic film's script. In fact, when the voice of George's beloved wife Mary is heard, praying for her husband, tears will fill your eyes as if by rote - Mariah Parris' superb performance, which comes as no surprise for anyone who's watched her essentially grow up on local stages, provides the linchpin of the production that sets it on its lovely, nostalgic way. As George, Caleb Shore (a newcomer to the Studio Tenn stage) has presence to spare and so much charm that it comes as small wonder that everyone in Bedford Falls is delighted to offer him their help when he needs it. Shore uses every bit of his tremendous talent to create a character who is the very personification of "everyman" and his performance is authentic and genuine. There is also something about him that's almost imperceptibly "Jimmy Stewartesque," a vocal inflection perhaps, that assures his every utterance lands with a certain gravitas. Parris and Shore are ideally paired as Mary and George.

BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Emotional and Heartfelt IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Magic to the Holiday Season
Galen Crawley

There are countless other Bedford Falls citizens who are brought to life thanks to the self-assured performances of Galen Crawley and Gerold Oliver, who deliver the goods with an easy alacrity. Moving quickly from one character to the next, from one personality to another, they do so with a certain grace that underscores their versatility. Pianist Mitch Beard, a multi-talented product of Belmont University's musical theatre program, accompanies the radio play's performance, lending his own presence to the altogether delightful proceedings.

Matthew Carlton, who played the role of the would-be angel Clarence Goodbody in Studio Tenn's 2014 staging of It's A Wonderful Life, provides the onstage leadership needed in this kind of production, displaying a wealth of experience and a deft, almost lyrical, ease that ensures seamless transitions as he plays one inimitable character after another, never once acting or sounding like the one who came before or after. Carlton's is a tour de force performance that audiences will be talking about for years to come and, which, hopefully they'll be able to witness year-after-year if the production becomes the annual holiday tradition that it is so perfectly crafted to be.

BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Emotional and Heartfelt IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Brings Magic to the Holiday Season It's A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play. Adapted by Joe Landry. From the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling. Directed by Patrick Cassidy. Stage managed by Cecilia Lighthall. Assistant stage manager Hatty King. Technical direction by Mitch White. Presented by Studio Tenn. At Jamison Hall, The Factory at Franklin. Through December 24. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission). For ticket information, go to www.studiotenn.com.

Caleb Short as George Bailey


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