Addison may be a far cry from Bedford Falls, but this holiday season WaterTower Theatre dishes out a healthy dose of nostalgia with It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.
A delightful rendition of the beloved Frank Capra film, the play's title sets realistic expectations for the 90-minute show. Black-and-white portraits line the halls leading to the theater—now disguised as an art deco radio studio in New York City's Rockefeller Center. With theater-goers as the in-studio audience, Joe Landry's adaptation uses five actors, a sounds effects man and an organist to bring George Bailey, Mr. Potter and the rest of Bedford Falls to life.
When radio served as the primary source of entertainment, programs such as Amos 'n' Andy, Dragnet and The Shadow, served as a whetstone for imagination. Hearing formless voices act out new stories and adventures allowed listeners to fully craft a visual counterpart. Despite the rich scenery designed by Rodney Dobbs, this radio play encourages the audience to envision Mr. Potter as B.J. Cleveland imitates the growling, gravely voice. And it's as though Matthew Laurence-Moore has encapsulated James Stewart's very slouch in his exasperated impression of George Bailey.
As impressive as his aural accuracy is the speed with which Cleveland slips from one character to another—one moment Uncle Billy, the next Potter, the next God. Also playing an assortment of characters, Jessica Cavanagh is child Violet one moment, George Bailey's mother the next. At certain moments the breakneck changes seem impossible, but like the underbelly of a magician's trunk or the frown on a prima-ballerina, these actors show us their hand—wiping the sweat off and dodging to their seats for a drink of water.
After all, this play's conceit is that the show's actual audience is on the other end of a radio frequency.
In case the conceit was forgotten, director Mark Fleischer inserts an intentional misstep or two. At one point, the otherwise flawless Foley man Scott Eckert knocks over a pan, forcing Cleveland to pretend that Uncle Billy fell down. But these glimpses of radio station life are too few. Other productions of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, hint at further back stories between the radio actors—perhaps rivalries or a romance between real life Mary and George Bailey.
But in this version we have five professionals gathered for one performance of a holiday special—laudable, but without excitement.
An added layer of narrative is the only thing lacking from this well-polished candy dish of a crowd-pleaser. Lydia Mackay sparkles as Mary Bailey, Moore delivers his Midwestern brusque with aplomb—and the script does no disservice to the heartwarming story of the original film.
It's a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play will delight audiences all season long.