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A Wonderful Life: Winged Victory

Watching Paper Mill's production of A Wonderful Life, the musical version of the Frank Capra classic that dares to eschew the word "It's", I kept having the nagging feeling I was watching a revival.  Thoughts went through my mind like, "Didn't this run for a year and a half sometime in the early 60's?  Didn't Richard Kiley and Barbara Cook get Tony nominations playing the lead roles?  I'm sure I bought the cast album in a used record shop…  Didn't Sheldon Harnick write the lyrics?" 

Well, Sheldon Harnick – lyricist for beloved musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me and the Pulitzer Prize winning Fiorello! – did pen the words for this one (he wrote the book, too) but although A Wonderful Life has the feel of one of those fine, old traditional musicals from the last gasps of The Golden Age, it's a much newer show than you might think. 

But not exactly brand new.  Harnick began working on the project twenty years ago with composer Joe Raposo, the longtime music director and co-creator of Sesame Street, who enchanted children and adults alike with songs like "Sing" and "It's Not Easy Bein' Green."  It was Harnick's first attempt at bookwriting and took about two years to complete.  Meanwhile, the project was delayed by complications surrounding the rights to the story, and then Raposo tragically died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 52.  Harnick kept working on the piece, adding (uncredited) his own music when necessary, and although A Wonderful Life has been produced regionally, the closest it has come to Broadway was a one-night charity performance held in New York last December. 


Harnick wisely sticks closely to the original plot about George Bailey (James Clow), an average Joe who spends a lifetime sacrificing his own ambitions for the sake of others and continually setting aside his own dreams in order to keep his late father's building and loan business afloat.  When the greedy banker Mr. Potter (Nick Wyman) manufactures a scandal that threatens to send him to jail, George contemplates suicide, and it's up to a wingless angel named Clarence (Jeff Brooks), coming down from Heaven by order of St. Matthew (Dale Radunz), to convince him of his own worth. 

There are minor edits and changes made when cinema storytelling doesn't quite work on stage.  For example, there are no bodies of water in the musical, natural or otherwise, but that most achingly passionate of telephone calls remains, along with those tear jerking final lines.  Harnick and Raposo resist the temptation to turn George's fired-up speeches against Potter into songs and lets them remain, most effectively, as speeches. 

Though A Wonderful Life is certainly a professionally crafted musical with a lot of heart and good-natured optimism, it never quite achieves wonderfulness.  The intangibles aren't there; songs that are catchier, jokes that are funnier, scenes that better enhance the drama.  It's certainly not a bad musical; just one that lacks that extra spark. 


But if A Wonderful Life doesn't satisfy as a whole, there are still some terrific moments, especially in director James Brennan's crisp production.  James Clow is a heroic everyman as George; a strong and likeable presence.  His beautiful and rich baritone voice is put to good use, especially in a dramatic musical soliloquy called "Precious Little," which begins as a bedtime story to his youngest daughter and evolves into the damnation of his own life that convinces him to end it all. 

Matching him vocally is the lovely sopranoed Catherine Brunell as his perky, clever and devoted wife, Mary.  Nick Wyman makes for a dastardly Mr. Potter and John Jellison brings strong singing to his brief appearance as George's father.  Sean Martin Hingston is a gas as go-getter Sam Wainwright, leading the company in choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler's show-stopping staging of "In The State," a lively Charleston about all the U.S. cities named Charleston.  

Jeff Brooks is an appropriately cherubic Clarence, the angel who is long overdue in earning his wings.  Though he's an appealing comic and Dale Radunz makes for a distinguished straight man as Matthew, their narrative scenes halt the proceedings too often.  Brooks is perfectly charming in his one solo, "Bells", but the number seems forced into Act I just to give him something to do. 

Gail Baldoni (costumes) and Richard Winkler (lights) both contribute fine work, but the most impressive visuals come from set designer Charlie Smith, who depicts small town living in the 1920's–40's by flying in Edward Hopper inspired backdrops; sometimes going as far as to depict street scenes inside large framed canvases.  Watch for his very funny sight gag in dressing Potter's office. 

Adapting a beloved classic like It's A Wonderful Life for the musical stage puts extra pressure on the creators.  Anything less than a classic itself may seem a failure.  But despite its imperfections, there's enough spunk and energy in Paper Mill's A Wonderful Life to make it worth a try for those seeking sincere, life-affirming family entertainment. 


Photos by Gerry Goodstein:  Top:  Catherine Brunell and James Clow

Center:  Sean Martin Hingston (center) and company

Bottom:  Jeff Brooks 

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