I have never watched the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart. We rarely watched these “holiday classics” in our home. My family gathered around for The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Muppet Family Christmas, and that Christmas episode of Hey Arnold! Any personal knowledge of the film comes from pop culture references and parodies.
Enter Theatre New Brunswick and its holiday production It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry (from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling). Running at the Fredericton Playhouse.
A live radio play? That’s right. It’s like a podcast for your eyes and ears!
It’s Christmas Eve, 1946. Five actors are preparing for a live broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life. A pianist (Emily Shute, sound designer) accompanies the actors. To the side, there is a table full of assorted objects. The radio drama will come alive through the magic of foley. Freddie Filmore (Wally MacKinnon) welcomes the studio audience and invites them to give their honest reactions to heighten the experience for listeners at home. The performance begins after he introduces the ensemble.
It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of a man trying to lift his neighbors out of poverty so that their families may prosper in the small town of Bedford Falls. That man is named George Bailey (Beau Dixon). Now, George’s efforts have not come without sacrifice. George has had to give up many dreams to continue his family’s work. He never went away to college, nor did he ever get to explore the world. George has stayed in Bedford Falls all his life.
George’s love for his community keeps him in Bedford Falls, but there is also something else that prevents him from leaving. Mr. Potter (MacKinnon) is a mean-spirited tycoon bent on controlling Bedford Falls. He owns nearly all the businesses in town save for George’s Building & Loan. Mr. Potter would have shut down the Bailey business long ago if it were not for George. Without George, there would be no Bedford Falls.
On Christmas Eve, an apprentice angel named Clarence (Rudy Hinds) visits George after a mix-up at the bank pushes him to the edge.
Unlike A Christmas Carol, there is no divine intervention that breaks through the heart of Bedford Fall’s old miser. The miser goes unbothered. Both stories are similar in that they demonstrate the impact that one person can have on the lives of many others. Of course, Scrooge only learns this lesson after spirits torment him. In It’s a Wonderful Life, divine intervention delivers George to the arms of his community. The last mile — it’s a community of ordinary people coming together to help one of their own. When George can fight no more, his friends and neighbors come to his aid so he can continue the mission.
In A Christmas Carol, the poor struggle without the rich. Here, the poor are trying to survive against the rich. Scrooge shuts out the world around him, whereas Mr. Potter has his hands in every corner of Bedford Falls. In a world without George Bailey, Mr. Potter achieves his ultimate goal: total erasure of the small town. The marginalized are further cast aside. George’s efforts help preserve the identity, history, and future of his community. Dixon — one of three black actors in the ensemble — in the role of George Bailey elevates the theme of erasure that runs through It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s hard to ignore as a brown guy sitting in the audience.
The first act is a bit of a drag. Clarence flips through the chapters of George’s life like it were a magazine in the doctor’s office. Except for the odd perfume sample, the plot is mainly a series of “George gets knocked down again.” The tender moments between George and his wife Mary Hatch (Kirsten Alter) are heartwarming. Landry’s adaptation sparks life into the story with commercial jingles that interrupt the program. The actors gleefully perform the jingles.
The actors, already playing multiple roles, take turns as the broadcast’s foley artists. Ordinary objects produce sounds that enrich the radio broadcast. A plunger and washtub full of water stand in for an icy river. Bicycle bells become telephones. And there’s even a small door to mark entrances and exits. It’s quite the old-timey spectacle.
Dixon plays George as a kind of impersonation of James Stewart. It works okay. He slips in and out of it occasionally. Does a radio broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life really depend on an imitation of Stewart’s voice? Director Natasha MacLellan seems to believe it does. I don’t think so, but I say that as someone with no attachment to the original film. All that aside, Dixon delivers a spirited performance as George.
Hinds has a million dollar smile. His cheerful energy lights up the stage. His performance as Clarence is delightful. MacKinnon’s Mr. Potter reminds me of Ed Asner’s performance in Up. Only MacKinnon is playing a real cold-hearted man, and his gruff voice and mannerisms in front of the microphone prove it. Alter is positively terrific as Mary Hatch. Her robust voice and expressive physicality make for a great performance. Jenny Munday demonstrates considerable range as she hops from character to character.
Set Designer Katherine Jenkins-Ryan turns Studio A into something that looks more like a living room recording session. For a radio station, there’s not a lot of equipment (that we can see, anyway). If it weren’t for the On Air and Applause signs, you would think a group of friends dropped into someone’s spacious home for a script reading. It’s not a negative. I, as a born and raised Martimer, think it’s a big plus. You step foot inside the theatre and almost immediately feel a part of something special. Jenkins-Ryan’s cozy set is the kind of warm and intimate space you want to be in, especially during the holiday season.
TNB’s holiday production is full of joy and wonderful storytelling from its versatile ensemble.
Theatre New Brunswick’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play ran December 12 – 14 at the Fredericton Playhouse.
The production will tour New Brunswick, December 15 – 21.
For more information about the show, visit: