Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play"

Full disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Christmas Eve 1946; Studio-A of radio station WTCP in Manhattan, NY -- and time for the "Playhouse of the Air" presentation of It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play. The actors gather on a cold night, the Stage Manager is in his booth, and the Foley artist [Sound Effects man] has his props all set. Add a pianist and a vocal trio, and The Cloverdale Playhouse's hour-and-forty-minute presentation is underway.

Joe Landry's adaptation of the 1946 classic film, a favorite of multitudes, re-tells the familiar story of George Bailey, a man whose dreams of leaving small-town Bedford Falls to accomplish "something big -- something important" are continually being thwarted or put aside as he helps others in need till he gets to a point of despair and considers suicide, believing that an insurance policy makes him "worth more dead than alive". -- His reclamation is aided by an Angel Second-Class named Clarence, who shows him how different the world would be had George never been born, and that the regard that others have for him demonstrates that he "really had a wonderful life", and emerges through love of family, sticking to his principles, and generosity towards his neighbors as "the richest man in town".

Director Greg Thornton's complement of five actors (many of them seasoned theatre artists, and almost all of whom are gracing The Cloverdale Playhouse stage for the first time) each play multiple roles, bringing to life the citizenry of Bedford Falls by assuming individualized voices for each one; to their credit and versatility, each character emerges fully recognizable. -- Even the WTCP Radio Singers [Sarah McWilliams, Kat Taylor, Toni Wood] are given personalities that help get us in the Christmas spirit as they sing carols to Marilyn Swears's expert piano accompaniment; and the "commercials" they sing for hair cream and soap are done with tongue-in-cheek aplomb.

The central characters -- George [Morgan Baker], his wife Mary [Alicia Ruth Jackson], the nasty money-grubbing Mr. Potter [Paul Nease], small town girl Violet [Barbara Smith], and of course the Angel Clarence [Patrick Hale] -- give appropriate nods to their film counterparts without attempting strict imitations.

Layne Holley's neutral scenic design replicates a 1940s radio station studio's details, one that puts us as the "On the Air" audience who are meant to respond to a flashing "Applause" sign on cue. -- Using period-looking stand microphones (equipped with an echo device for the "heavenly" sequences), a scattering of chairs, a piano, and tables in full view loaded with sound effects devices that invite our full participation in the story as Foley Artist Joe Collins deftly anticipates the sounds needed, with Stage Manager Jonathan Adam Davilla's assistance. Though we might want to watch their every move, if we close our eyes on occasion, the effect is excellent.

Eleanor K. Davis's period costumes (and the women's hair styles) lend authenticity to the proceedings, and add a bit of humor to the visual impact.

It's a Wonderful Life: a live radio play is a pretty straightforward re-telling of the film, with little attempt to develop relationships among the actors in the radio station studio playing the roles, even though each one has a distinct personality. -- So, while we are impressed by the versatility of the ensemble's talents, the story's timeless messages are the main focus, and come through loud and clear: ordinary people's lives have value far beyond the reaches of mere economic worth, dreams and goals are sometimes fulfilled in unexpected ways, kindness and generosity to others are often their own reward. Things to keep in mind throughout the year. -- And, oh yes, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."