Farmer's Branch — “Civil War historian writes one of America’s most endearing Christmas stories.” That was never a newspaper headline because at the time Phillip Van Doren Stern wrote “The Greatest Gift” (1943), it was impossible to know whether it would become more than a short story. There was no promise of it ever amounting to anything more than something he developed from a message he had written on Christmas cards to friends. The short story was published the following year and by 1946 Frank Capra had translated it into film under the title of It’s a Wonderful Life. Joe Landry’s adaptation for the stage premiered in 1996 as It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, and Derek Whitener it for The Firehouse Theatre’s.
This drama is designed for five characters who assume responsibility for an array of voices. This means the actors are portraying actors that are portraying characters. Jake Laurents (Ryan Diller) is our hero, George Bailey. The show is announced by Freddie Fillmore (Ian Mead Moore). Harry “Jazzbo” Haywood (Brandon A. Bailey) is also Sam Wainright. Sally Applewhite (Alexandra Cassens) is George’s adoring wife, Mary. Lana Sherwood (Emmie Kivell) is vixen Violet Bick. Musical interludes are provided by a trio, the Fontainne Sisters (Kate Dressler, Sarah Roberts, and Ashley Markgraf), and by celebrity songstress Trixie Devine (Kimberly Oliver). Clarence the Angel is handled by Paul Niles who also voices Mr. Nichols, while mean old Potter is covered by Sean Massey, who also voices Joseph and Oliver Reese Johnston.
Ah, but no radio drama is complete with the sound effects guy, in this instance Foley artist Jingles (Andrew “Bedpost” Friedrich). Adding texture and nuance is the music of Scott A. Eckert who arranged and also composed original music for this production.
The movie story is clear and easy to follow: George Bailey, a beloved member of society in Bedford Falls, finds himself in a predicament so dire that he decides the best solution for his family is his suicide. Just as he is about to hurl himself off a bridge on Christmas Eve, a mysterious stranger interrupts him. George explains that he thinks everyone will be better off without him. The stranger then shows him what Bedford Falls would be like if George had never existed.
Knowing this story helps to follow this live radio drama. There are spots where things become confusing and a little too chaotic. This might be due to the addition of characters which is an option available to directors with prior approval. It might also be due to the tightness of space. Kevin Brown (set designer) squeezed in an area for the sound effects work, two keyboard instruments, seats for the actors, a stage manager, standing microphones, and an upstage exit into a space that is not very big. His design works, but it is tight. Whitener repositions the actors at different microphones as they switch characters which anchors the audience.
Alexandra Cassens is quite lovely as Mary, introducing the character honestly and without over-stylizing. She and Ryan Diller look and sound the way one might imagine Mary and George. Sean Massey moves around character voices with dizzying speed, at one point earning applause mid-scene. It is an impressive moment.
Branden A. Bailey and Emmie Kivell have developed clear personalities as Jazzbo and Violet, each having “business going on” in the background which they manage without drawing distracting from the primary story. Not even when the Fontainne sister, outfitted in her tutu skating-like outfit, takes a swig from a flask. What the audience can see is the show delivered into the microphones and the show happening in the studio out of microphone range.
The musical renditions are nice, with a standout by Kate Dressler as Judy Lester singing “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” while Kimberly Oliver/Trixie Devine sparkles through “Santa Baby.” The musical highlight is “O Holy Night” sung by Alexandra Cassens as Mary. Gorgeous.
At Firehouse, Stern’s story is wonderful live.