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Review: Matt McGee in American Stage's WONDERFUL LIFE

Review: Matt McGee in American Stage's WONDERFUL LIFE

Matt McGee's one man show brilliantly brings to life over a dozen characters from the beloved Christmas Story.

"You see George, you really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?" --Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, in "It's a Wonderful Life"

"They shouldn't have called it 'It's a Wonderful Life.' They should have called it, "It's a Sucky Life and Just When You Think It Can't Suck Any More, It Does!" --Phoebe from "Friends"

I have been championing local favorite Matt McGee for over a decade. Although he shines and is renowned as a comic performer and drag act, he often showcases a broad versatility that gives us hints of depth and real emotion.

I have seen Mr. McGee as more than just an automatic laugh riot or fourth-wall-breaking presence who will do anything to leave the audience in stitches; I have always known that he is a serious artist. His performance of Mame several years back, perhaps originally done as a gimmick, gave brief glimpses into a real actor, not just a drag act, in the key moment when Mame fears she has lost her nephew. It was heartbreaking in Mr. McGee's hands. Several other roles, including much of his more recent work in a very busy year (where he played the likes of James Beard, Hercule Poirot and Mother Superior), show off this versatility as well. I have wondered what Mr. McGee would do with such roles as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or an Iago, or a Roy Cohn. Where can his uncanny ability ultimately take him? He obviously can do it all, not just comic creations oftentimes donning dresses (or nun's habits). But then again, looking at the career of Robin Williams, did you prefer seeing him in serious roles like Jakob the Liar and One Hour Photo or his more memorable, humorous turns in Mrs. Doubtfire or Aladdin?

I bring this up because Mr. McGee is currently wowing audiences with his breathless one-man version of It's a Wonderful Life, aptly called WONDERFUL LIFE. Even though he carries a script in hand, he is not just reading us a beloved Christmas story; he's inhabiting it with all of his might.

WONDERFUL LIFE is the cup of holiday cheer that many of us have been thirsting for. It's a unique view of a story we know well, filling in key details and deepening the lives of these iconic characters. It wallops us into the Christmas spirit. (After viewing it, I felt like I'd just gulped down some pretty strong eggnog, which is a good thing.) Make no mistake, this version does not equal the original film's emotional power and heart-melting joys (how could it?), but it does something else. It enhances our knowledge of the Capra classic and gives us new insights in what it's like had each one of us never been born. The story lives and breathes right before our eyes, unfolding in the hands of one of our area's most essential theatrical artists.

WONDERFUL LIFE spotlights Mr. McGee's versatility as he jumps in and out of the souls of over a dozen Bedford Falls denizens, reminding me of Dr. Sam Beckett hopscotching through various souls in a particularly busy Quantum Leap.

I wonder how anyone unfamiliar with It's a Wonderful Life will enjoy this version, but McGee is so spellbinding that he could read the index of The Science of Plants and make it enthralling.

For those of you who are not pop-cultured and have never seen nor wept over It's a Wonderful Life in its many TV screenings, the work actually started as a short story by Phillip Van Doren Stern entitled The Greatest Gift. Frank Capra turned it into his finest film, but it only received mixed reviews and so-so box office upon its initial release in 1946. The Best Years of Our Lives, another great film, eclipsed it at the b.o. and at the Academy Awards. It's a Wonderful Life was actually nominated for a handful of awards and, yes, Virginia, it did win one Oscar: The Technical Achievement Award "for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets." Forget James Stewart, Donna Reed Frank Capra, Henry Travers, or one of the great filmic stories of all time; the only Oscar respect the movie received was for its snow.

The film only gained its popularity when the copyright ran out and it was shown continuously on TV, especially around Christmastime.

What makes It's a Wonderful Life so compelling, as a film and in Mr. McGee's one-man show, is that we can put ourselves into the shoes of George Bailey. The Twilight Zone idea of seeing the world and especially those you love without you in their lives, and seeing this Butterfly Effect of every instance of your life, big or small, cannot be denied its power. We never know the Bigger Picture of even the slightest of our decisions. As Clarence says, "Every man's life touches so many other lives. And when he isn't around he leaves such an awful hole, doesn't he?" What works best here is that it's not some presidential mover or shaker who gets this greatest of gifts to see this world without him; it's smalltown George Bailey, an Everyman with a good heart and family who's hit hard times.

The stage is bare in WONDERFUL LIFE, except for a lectern, a bench and an easel bearing a sign: "WELCOME TO BEDFORD FALLS." Bedford Falls is the ultimate Capra town, where "you know everyone...everyone knows you." Mr. McGee walks onstage to applause and then he delivers us his greatest gift: as a storyteller. And each character is given a different soul. Mr. McGee doesn't use hats or, with the exception of a pair of eyeglasses, props or costumes. He can show us the change of a character with a simple turning of the lectern, or a shift of the legs. Rarely do we not know who is talking in these various monologues. There is a distinct difference, for instance, between Mary, George's wife, and Violet, the town harlot, even though they are played by the same man sans drag. He changes his sitting position ever so slightly and adjusts the accent, and we instantly know who's who.

All of the other Bedford Falls characters are embodied by this marvel of a performer, including Sam "Hee Haw" Wainwright, Harry Bailey, Mr. Martini, Uncle Billy, Ma Bailey, Bert and Ernie, and Nick the Bartender. His Clarence fits so easily into Mr. McGee's skin, and we sense the innocence, the childlike grace, in this most-beloved of angels. Since George Bailey is so engrained in our brains with the aww-shucks sound of James Stewart, it may throw some people off with Mr. McGee playing him as an everyday soul and not doing an impersonation (which would be disastrous; this is not a Rich Little routine). But his George comes through and we root for him, pray with him, cry with him, and feel his ultimate joy at the end.

Mr. McGee also does the near impossible: He makes us, if not completely empathize, at least understand Mr. Potter a bit more. We still want to tear him to shreds, a la a famous SNL skit, but we understand what he went through with his polio and his unquenchable need for money, power and control. He is given a real story, not just a miserly Wicked Witch lip-licking villain turn. He's a survivor, he's not gon' give up, he's not gon' stop, he's gon' work harder. And he loses his heart along the way, as so many money-hungry titans do. Mr. McGee dons glasses only in his Potter parts, and wearing them, he resembles the late Mikhail Gorbachev without the birthmark. And he becomes strikingly cold-hearted and intimidating.

I usually cry before the events in the movie version...it's a Pavlovian effect to a movie that means so much to me. But the tears really flow when George is praying after his scary venture in Pottersville and the snow quietly falls behind him. The visual really gets me bawling. So without that visual here, I didn't quite weep at this key emotional moment. However, I did tear up quite heavily at the end, when Mr. McGee gracefully says his final lines and wishes us a heartfelt Merry Christmas. The audience applauded and wiped away their tears at the same time.

This version of It's a Wonderful Life, nicely co-adapted by Helen R. Murray and Jason Lott, and directed by Ms. Murray, and is presented by American Stage and being performed at various venues. It's already come and gone at thestudio@620 and Coastal Creative, and it has one more 2:00 PM performance today in the beautiful James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, where I caught the sold-out matinee on Saturday. It moves to Gulfport on December 22nd (7:00 PM), 23rd (8:00 PM) and 24th (2:00 & 8:00 PM) at the Catherine A. Hickman Theater, where it closes. Then it's Christmas day in Florida where it'll be cold but there won't be any snow like in Bedford Falls...and yes, Zuzu, more than one angel will surely get their wings. But so many of us have already received our ultimate Christmas gift...we got to experience Mr. McGee and this WONDERFUL LIFE.



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