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BWW Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Gorgeous New Take on the Holiday Classic

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The heartwarming and creatively staged re-imagining of the iconic film runs through December 26th, with streaming available through January 2nd

BWW Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Gorgeous New Take on the Holiday Classic
A talented cast of five versatile actors (L to R: Moses Villarama, Sarita Ocón, Todd Cerveris, Luisa Sermol & Phil Wong) portray the entire town of Bedford Falls in
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Just when so many of us are despairing that our world is so broken it can never be repaired, along comes It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play to suggest otherwise. This gorgeous new production at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, while set in the 1940's, depicts a community that looks not unlike our own as it goes through the depths of despair only to band together and defy the bullies that would destroy it. I'm still not 100% certain such a thing can happen in these current, troubled times, but after seeing this show, I also wouldn't bet against it.

As a theater piece, playwright Joe Landry has created a fascinating hybrid. It both is and isn't a straight-forward re-enactment of the celebrated film. It's also an affectionate salute to the artistry of radio, where aural cues allow the listener's imagination to run wild. While it offers a sly send up of some of the cornier conventions of that era, it also shows a great deal of respect for that core value we like to think of as quintessentially American, the possibility of people from diverse backgrounds coming together to make a better world for everyone.

The show is thankfully not what I had expected, i.e. just a madcap romp with actors buzzing about the stage, changing character every 30 seconds, frantically donning and doffing various garments and accents to show off just how hard they're working. Yes, there's a little of that here, but it has largely been directed by Giovanna Sardelli with a much lighter touch that tamps down any tendency toward obvious yuks, and thus allows the humanity of the characters to shine through. Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty of humor to be found, often with multiple visual and aural jokes going on simultaneously, but it is presented with a subtlety that allows you to discover it on your own. Even for those who come in knowing the story like the back of their hand, this is a production that rewards you for sitting up and paying attention.

Sardelli's approach gets a huge assist from her crack design team. The moment I entered the theater and laid eyes on Christopher Fitzer's pitch-perfect, radio studio set, with wainscoting a specific shade of green I haven't seen since my grandmother's midwestern kitchen, I knew exactly where I was. And even though it's a unit set, there are a lot of surprising bells and whistles that gradually come to the fore under Steven B. Mannshardt's supple lighting. I was amazed by how a simple shift in red lighting completely transformed the studio into Pottersville's sleazy dive bar late in the proceedings. Or how a door upstage opens briefly to let in the most blustery of snowstorms. Cathleen Edwards' costumes are equally adroit. She has the tricky task of creating a single costume for each actor that reads appropriately as streetwear for a 1940's radio performer, and also works for any number of other characters an actor is playing. I am obsessed with the flowered, lavender dress that allows Luisa Sermol to transform with ease between earnest little tot, knowing adult seductress and staunch family matriarch.

BWW Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Gorgeous New Take on the Holiday Classic
The full cast of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Sardelli and casting director Jeffrey Lo have also assembled a terrifically talented and versatile cast of five that looks like our Bay Area communities today. Moses Villarama, as George Bailey, has the most difficult role (how exactly does one banish memories of Jimmy Stewart's iconic performance?), and largely succeeds. While I could have used more anguish from him in later scenes, he brings a welcome, light touch to his establishing scenes and projects an aura of decency that goes a long way toward defining his character. Todd Cerveris as the angel Clarence likewise battles with memories of Henry Travers' idiosyncratic performance in the film but registers more strongly in a variety of smaller roles, including the war hero brother Harry Bailey. Sarita Ocón makes an appealing Mary Bailey, while also defly handling perhaps the heaviest load of foley-artist sound effects.

BWW Review: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A LIVE RADIO PLAY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Offers a Gorgeous New Take on the Holiday Classic
Mary and George Bailey (Sarita Ocón and Moses Villarama, foreground) share a tender moment
as Lana and Freddie (Luisa Sermol and Phil Wong) croon a tune behind them
in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

The two actors who make the strongest impressions are Phil Wong and Luisa Sermol, both playing a mind-boggling array of minor characters with an abundance of skill and artistry and absolutely no fuss. Wong kicks off the show as unctuous radio emcee Freddie Fillmore (kudos to playwright Landry for that little I Love Lucy allusion!), then makes a credibly intimidating authority figure, an irascible cab driver, and various kind-hearted townsfolk. Sermol shows perhaps an even greater range, from her deliciously batty Zuzu carefully plunking out notes on the family piano to her ultra-saucy Violet to her Mrs. Bailey, all grandmotherly warmth and stalwart decency. Is there anything these two actors can't do?

Do I have any quibbles about the production? Sure, there are a few. I wish the George's descent into suicidal mania had felt a little scarier, and that the final, joyous chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" had been more resonant, but those are relatively minor issues. And perhaps they can be solved if TheatreWorks brings this production back in successive holiday seasons. Particularly in a world over-saturated with seemingly ubiquitous productions of A Christmas Carol and Nutcracker, lovely as many of them are, it's refreshing to have an alternative to celebrate the holidays in a communal way. I can easily see this one becoming an annual tradition, eventually thus lending an extra layer of nostalgia to the proceedings. Remember when we all saw It's a Wonderful Life onstage the first time...?

(All photos by Kevin Berne)

Performances of TheatreWorks' production of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play continues through Sunday, December 26th at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1301 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA. The play is also available for streaming on demand through January 2nd. Running time is 95 minutes, no intermission. For additional information visit theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960.


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