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BWW Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at Virginia Repertory Theatre

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A throwback to the 1940s for Christmas

BWW Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at Virginia Repertory Theatre

It's an undeniable favorite: People love "It's a Wonderful Life." Well, lots of people do.

It's not my favorite Christmas movie. But for the film's many fans, the season can't pass without a viewing. And Virginia Rep's production of Joe Landry's adaptation provides an enjoyable alternative.

Landry based this version on the 1946 movie, which was itself based on the 1943 short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern. The twist is that we're transported to a 1946 radio studio for a live radio version of the same tale.

Actors filter in as the pleasant guy in charge, Freddie Filmore (genially played by Willliam Anderson), greets them and us. The studio is dressed up for Christmas, and snowflakes light up the auditorium's ceiling.

Within a few minutes the cast of six voice actors has assembled. Each will play a variety of characters, switching nimbly among them. But they do more than change voices--they physically act out the play, do the piano accompaniment, and make the sound effects themselves.

There are many charming bits throughout the show, from the irresistibly hokey commercials to the sharply delineated characterizations. But the play has many dark moments, and it runs nearly two hours without intermission. There are stretches that feel long and dull. So many roles are undertaken by the small cast that it can be confusing to keep track of who's who.

Director Chelsea Burke moves the actors and the action expertly, but the script lacks effervescence. The choice to keep the sound effects tables upstage makes it hard for the audience to enjoy the fun of seeing how the effects are done.

The hardworking cast members are Kurt Benjamin Smith as Jake Laurents, who plays the hero, George Bailey; Anna da Costa as ingenue Sally Applewhite, who portrays his wife, Mary; and Maggie Bavolack as established star Lana Sherwood, who plays several women with voices ranging from sultry to squeaky. Joshua Mullins and Bo Wilson both bring us several characters with varying accents and timbres. Voice and dialect coach Karen Kopryanski was surely an asset to the production.

The cheerful half-realistic set is by Mercedes Schaum, with happy holiday lights by BJ Wilkinson. Sue Griffin's period costumes are especially lovely, and sound designer Jacob Mishler is one of the gifted few who can successfully banish the November Theatre's echo.

It's a sometimes grim journey to a happy ending, but of course all ends well for George and Mary Bailey. And Clarence the angel gets his wings.

"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play"

At November Theatre Arenstein Stege, 114 W. Broad St.

Through January 2

Tickets $36-$56; rush tickets available

Info: va-rep.org or (804) 282-2620


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