BWW Review: Ocean State Theatre Gives the Gift of Holiday Musical Perfection in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
The holiday season brings many things, including some important seasonal debates. Real tree or fake? Multi-colored lights or just white? Your family, the in-laws or both? And among those yearly discussions is which holiday theatrical production to enjoy. This year, if you choose to see just one holiday play or musical during the season, the one to see is at Ocean State Theatre Company.
One of the most familiar and beloved holiday season movies is the classic 1946 Frank Capra film It's A Wonderful Life. Since its appearance, the movie has been adapted into multiple stage musical versions, a stage play, a "live radio play" for the stage, and multiple versions meant to be heard over the radio. Based on a short story, The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern, It's A Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, an American everyman who has given up all hope when a guardian angel arrives to show him what life would be like if he was never born.
This version, the second musical adaptation, written in the 1990s, has book and lyrics by Keith Ferguson with music by Bruce Greer. Ferguson has made a few changes here and there to the beloved movie, but they are minor and all make perfect sense in the context of a stage musical. The movie's flashback scenes displaying George's childhood heroics are gone and replaced by a few lines of dialogue or lyrics in a song where characters describe what George did and how it impacted others. In another minor change, scenes in the bar owned by Mr. Martini are gone and Martini's role is changed slightly but probably for the better.
Ferguson's only change from the movie that might elicit a complaint is that the section taking place in the alternate world of "Pottersville" is too condensed and too short. Most of what happens in the movie is all concentrated into one musical number, albeit a great one. There are some important moments that don't appear and/or aren't referenced at all. While there are clearly restrictions about what you can do within the confines of a stage musical (crashing a car into a tree, for example), it would have been nice to see these powerful moments still take place (seeing an important character's tombstone, for example). It's especially frustrating considering just how long it takes to get to Pottersville. We don't arrive there till midway through Act Two and it seems that Ferguson could have trimmed or cut out some of the earlier moments in the musical so that we can spend more time in the alternate George Bailey-less world. It would also make George's journey and transformation just a bit more earned and satisfying.
Aside from that minor quibble, Ferguson and Greer have created a brilliant musical adaptation of the movie. One of the biggest reasons for this is that everything is played straight and serious. While some might claim the movie is corny or cheesy, there is little to none of that in this musical, and when there is, its intentional cheesiness, put there by design to create humorous moments. And those moments always work, creating a number of hilarious musical numbers, such as "Bless You, George Bailey" and "Second Class Angel." As good as those comic moments are, the moments of drama and romance are just as good or better. There are rousing scenes, like George singing "My Life," that may make you feel like you're at a production of Les Mis for a moment. Other sections, pretty much every time George and Mary sing together, are superb scenes of musical drama and romance.
If it sounds like a musical with something for everyone, it is. It's also, at least in this reviewer's mind, an improvement on the movie. This adaptation manages to give even more focus and life to certain characters, especially Mary, George's wife, who gets to be more center-stage. The infamous Mr. Potter, George's nemesis, also gets more development and is given more to do than just be a caricature and stereotype of maniacal evil. While giving his characters more attention and depth, Ferguson also gives more focus to the issues that underlie the movie's story. They are important themes that are especially relevant in this moment in history, themes about wealth inequality and one percenters versus everyone else. Finally, it's just a fantastically joyous and life-affirming family-friendly holiday spectacle.
While that seem like a lot to juggle, Director and Choreographer Amiee Turner handles all of it perfectly. She makes sure that each moment gets its due, from the big, broad comedy that's always hilarious to the tiny, fleeting moments that are emotionally uplifting or devastating. For example, there's a moment in the Pottersville sequence where George encounters his mother and while the moment lasts only a few seconds, it is played perfectly and has exactly the right kind of emotional impact. It's that kind of care and attention to detail that Turner brings to her work here. She also brings her choreographic A-game, especially during Act One's school dance scene where she stages a wonderful Charleston dance competition.
Along with her fine direction, Turner has brought together a stellar cast who perfectly execute their roles. Charged with carrying much of the show, if not all of it, is Kevin Cirone as George Bailey. Looking a bit like Benedict Cumberbatch and sounding a lot like Jimmy Stewart, he has the charm and charisma of both of them. Cirone, like the musical itself, plays it straight, maintaining a believable humanity and sincerity in every moment. He also brings a fantastic singing voice that he puts to perfect use, mostly in Act Two and especially during the scene on the bridge when he sings "My Life."
Perfectly cast alongside Cirone is Melissa McKamie as George's wife Mary. With a radiance surpassed only by her gorgeous singing voice, McKamie has a wonderful chemistry with Cirone, with home she makes an adorable and believable couple. She's also a highly talented actress who brings her own emotional depth and sincerity to every moment, including her wonderful solo numbers (her rendition of "My Geroge Bailey" is spectacular). As mentioned, Mary gets more to do and more attention in this adaptation, compared to the movie, and McKamie takes full advantage of the opportunity.
Ocean State again fills their stage with what feels at times like a cast of thousands. Musically, they are led by musical director John Jay Espino, who creates stunningly beautiful sounds with the combinations of voices at his disposal. When they all get together and sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" at the show's end, you will wish that the entire cast could stick around and just sing Christmas carols for a few more hours.
All of the performers who bring those voices to the stage deserve a lot of credit. Jef Canter is adorable and hilarious as Clarence, his "Second Class Angel" is one of many highlights (made even moreso by Cirone's perfect "straight-man" presence). Local favorite Tom Gleadow is flawless as Uncle Billy. Peter Tedeschi and Marion Markham have a very sweet, lovely moment when they sing "A Place To Call Home" early in the show. Tedesci reappears in a fantastic portrayal of the evil Mr. Potter, finding the perfect balance the character needs, only taking things into the realm of caricature or camp when it's called for. Rudy Sanda and Stefani Wood are perfectly hilarious as Mr. and Mrs. Martini, respectively. Patrick Mark Saunders is always fun to watch, even when he's just standing behind Mr. Potter, not saying anything. Taryn Mallard-Red and Taylor Elise Rector are other standouts in supporting roles, and Kate Rocchio is the most adorable Zuzu you've ever seen.
Aside from a few minor technical glitches during the performance I attended, Ocean State's technical team has crafted another top-notch production. Katryne Hecht's set is simple but perfect, setting the scene without overwhelming it, supporting the realistic tone and tenor of the musical with just enough touches of fun, frivolity and spirit. Kudos especially for the way the moments during and after "the bridge scene" are handled and the look and feel of Pottersville. Along with Hecht's set, costumes by Emily Taradash perfectly create the look and feel of Bedford Falls in the 1940s. While there are a few odd and distracting lighting moments from David A Sexton, most of his design supports the story and the mood without detracting from it.
Yesterday, December fifth, was the third anniversary of Ocean State Theatre's first performance in their new space in Warwick. It's hard to argue with the belief that this is the best holiday musical they have presented in those three years. It's very likely among the best musical of any kind that they've put on stage. Those who love the movie will love this musical. Others who hate the movie will still love this musical. It is everything that we look for in both a holiday movie and a musical production and it should not be missed.
It's a Wonderful Life will be presented at Ocean State Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick, from December 2 - 27. Performances will be held Wednesday (except December 16), Thursday (except December 24), Friday (except December 25), and Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm, with matinees on Thursdays (except December 17 & 24), Saturdays (except December 5,) and Sundays at 2:00 pm (except December 20 & 27). Additionally, Sunday, December 20 at 12:00 noon and 5:00 pm, Tuesday, December 22 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, December 27 at 5:00 pm. Tickets are $39 for preview performances and $39-$59 for all other performances. $30 "Rush" tickets are available on a limited basis one hour prior to curtain on the day of the performance. Tickets are on sale at the box office Monday through Friday from 12 noon - 6:00 pm, Saturdays from 12 noon - 4:00 pm, and from 12 noon until curtain time on performance days. Tickets are also available online 24 hours a day at OceanStateTheatre.org or by calling 401-921-6800.