Holiday Perfection at Gamm's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY
Nowadays, it seems that everything old is constantly being rebooted, updated, adapted, etc. etc., so on and so forth. Any time something is re-imagined or adapted into something else, such as the many new Broadway musicals based on Hollywood movies, it can be a risky proposition. In the case of The Gamm Theatre's live radio play version of the classic movie It's a Wonderful Life, the adaptation is pulled off perfectly, honoring and respecting the source material while doing it in a creative, imaginative and immensely entertaining way.
That source material is the classic and beloved 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life, which was directed by legendary Frank Capra and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Since then, it's come to be considered one of the greatest movies of all time and has been adapted into various versions, including a number of versions for the stage, both straight play and musical.
At the center of the story is George Bailey, a lifelong resident of the town of Bedford Falls, New York, where he runs the Building and Loan. Growing up, George dreamed of getting out of Bedford Falls, escaping and exploring the world, building skyscrapers and doing big, important things. Life has other plans for him, of course, and he ends up sacrificing those dreams along the way, helping out the people of his home town and putting them and their needs before himself. One Christmas Eve, the one where we first meet George, he has hit rock bottom and is contemplating suicide, which leads to the appearance of his guardian angel, Clarence. In an effort to save George, Clarence shows him what the world would be like if he were never born and just how wonderful his life really is.
Joe Landry's adaptation takes us back to 1946, but rather than the streets of Bedford Falls, we are transported to fictional radio station WGAM in Warwick, Rhode Island. There, a group of radio personalities are about to broadcast the radio play version of the movie across the airwaves to all of the northeast. It's those broadcasters who then take us with them to the Bedford Falls, creating the setting, characters, and drama as they read the play into their old-school radio microphones, accompanied by the sound effects created live in the studio with them. There are some brilliant touches Landry introduces, especially the two old-timey radio ads and the reading of special messages over the air, submitted by the audience.
One of the many wonderful things about this production is that audience immersion, created by Landry and director Damon Kiely. Immediately upon entering the theater, we are surrounded by the sights and sounds of the radio studio and are sitting in that studio's seating area, watching the performers mingle and prepare, letting us know what's coming and inviting us to sing a few carols as we wait for the radio play to begin. From that very promising start, all of Kiely's choices work perfectly, leading to brilliant world building, right down to each finely tuned detail.
Bringing everything together so brilliantly couldn't be done without assembling an ensemble as good as this one. Making a radio play this entertaining and fun takes a special kind of cast and Kiely has just that at his disposal, with some of our area's most talented performers doing some of their usual outstanding work (all playing 1946 radio personality versions of themselves). They are all so equally good, it would be unfair to single anyone out for being above the rest. Tony Estrella leads the way as George Bailey and delivers a finely nuanced, fully realized and multi-layered performance. Madeleine Lambert is brilliantly charismatic as Mary Hatch and Rose Bailey. Jeff Church is hilarious and demonstrates a wonderful talent for a diversity of very funny voices. Equally amazing at a variety of voices is Fred Sullivan, Jr., who does a great job as both the sinister Potter and equally virtuous Clarence.
Lynsey Ford gives some wonderful personality and vivaciousness to Violet and others, Richard Noble is a perfect Uncle Billy, and Emily Tuttle provides an adorable voice for Zuzu, dramatic piano music when necessary, and shows off her perfect radio voice as an announcer for WGAM. Backing up all of them is DJ Potter as the Foley Artist. Potter is just as essential and just as talented as the actors who do all the speaking, even though he says almost no words. His sound effect creations, from footsteps to doors closing to people falling into water to many others, really bring the radio play's moments to life while never distracting or taking away from the story.
Technical elements are top-notch as well, including the set design by Michael McGarty which creates a wonderful vintage radio studio that is almost a character all by itself. Jessie Darrell Jarbadan's costumes similarly bring the period to wonderful, colorful life, and it's all well lit by Noah Beauregard. Everything about the show truly works together to create an unforgettable experience that will make you feel like you're seeing It's a Wonderful Life for the first time. Making something so well-known and recognizable feel so fresh and new, making it this surprising and fun, is no small feat, and Gamm has pulled it off spectacularly.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio play is presented by The Gamm Theatre, located at 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick, Rhode Island, and runs through December 22. Show times are Tuesday (10th only) at 6:30pm, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30pm (also a student matinee open to the public at 10am on Friday, the 13th), Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets may be purchased at their website, www.gammtheatre.org, or by visiting the box office, open Tuesday to Friday, 10am-5pm, 10am to curtain on weekdays when there's a show, and 12pm to curtain on weekends when there is a show, or by calling the box office at 401-723-4266. Ticket prices range from $20 to $45.