Theater Review: It's A Wonderful Life

Dec 4, 2019

The cast of Farmers Alley Theatre's "It's a Wonderful Life"
Credit Becky Klose / Farmers Alley Theatre

It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is currently playing at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

This version of It’s A Wonderful Life offers a different perspective on an old Christmas movie favorite. The Farmers Alley production features seven gifted actors performing a live late 1940’s broadcast, complete with wonderfully executed sound effects, vividly rendered dialogue, and superb musical support.

The now familiar story of George Bailey, his financial difficulties, and his reawakening to the value of life, love and friendship, are left largely intact in Joe Landry’s inventive script.

What sets this version apart is the action behind the scenes inside the mythical WFAT radio studio. Key elements here are the vocal and physical energy that amplify the evening for the audience seated cabaret style, and then beyond to the imaginary national audience of the period, listening on their radios at home.

Before the show begins, Brian Panse as the Stage Manager gives a fifteen-minute notice until air time for “Playhouse of the Air” and tonight’s radio play. The actors begin to arrive, converse with one another, check sound effects, microphones, and props in the studio. Then the audience is encouraged to laugh, cry, or applaud. A five-second count down is given and the broadcast begins.

Clarence, the meek Angel-Second Class, played by Tim Eschelbach, steps to the microphone to receive an assignment from his superior in heaven, seated at the piano in the form of the show’s able music director, Hal Hobson-Morse.

Credit Becky Klose / Farmer's Alley Theatre

As George's life unfolds, Eschelbach is both witness and a participant. The mercurial Eschelbach performs multiple roles throughout the show as he morphs from an Italian restauranteur to a determined customer at the Building and Loan seeking withdrawal of his “two hundred and forty-two dollars”.

Similarly, Lori Moore moves seamlessly between several characters including George’s mother, a bank examiner, and the town floozy. She shines as George’s daughter, bed-ridden and home from grade school with a sore throat. In a quiet interlude within the cacophony of family turmoil, after George’s financial woes send his temper sky high, Moore’s sweet young character brings her father back to earth in a tender, down-tempo, whispered exchange of flower petals that melts every heart in the house.

Another high point is Ron Centers’ phone conversation with himself as he shifts back and forth between the gruff manipulative banker, Henry S. Potter, and the nervous and confused Uncle Billy, who has a misplaced $8,000 in cash. Centers never misses a beat as he conveys the emotional stakes for these characters in rapid-fire succession.

The show’s pace and timing are two of many reasons for the success of Director Sandra Bremer’s production. There are no dead spaces between lines as every cue is picked up and each sound effect is executed with precision by Foley artists in full view of the audience.

Jeremy Koch, as George, and Julia Burrows, as love interest Mary, are two more key reasons why this production soars. In one of the show’s most captivating moments, the pair listen cheek-to-cheek on a single phone receiver to a long-distance proposal from an old friend. By the time the third-party call is finished, the close proximity has given way to intimate eye contact. The two have fallen in love.

The scene ends with what would have been a stage kiss. But because this is a radio broadcast, Koch and Burrows purposefully drop character, return to their period actor personas, and lean in to finish with a slight bump of foreheads and a smile.

That’s the beauty this adaptation for radio. Character is stripped away to reveal studio performers, who are in turn played by present-day actors. The result is a layered relationship between artist and audience that is seldom experienced in the theatre.

Finally, it should also be noted that although this is not a musical, there is plenty of music in the show, as well as seasonal songs between the acts, and charming commercial jingles promoting hair tonic and Ducks’ Toilet Cake Soap. One more reason why It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play might well be at the top of any list for Holiday entertainment.

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