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Capsule Stage Reviews: It's a Wonderful Life, Kimberly Akimbo, Sanders Family Christmas, Sylvia, Viv!

It's a Wonderful Life Old-time radio drama gets a nostalgic analog tune-up under Texas Repertory Theatre's shrewd adaptation of Frank Capra's Christmas-friendly movie (1946). In Joe Landry's stage version, we're the 1940s audience during a live radio broadcast of NYC station WBFR's "Playhouse of the Air," like something out of Lux Radio Theatre, renowned for its movie adaptations. We watch the actors take on multiple roles as the drama unfolds, see and hear the sound effects in action, and listen to the humorous commercials for hair pomade, tooth powder and toilet soap. There's even an Applause sign that lights up when appropriate to prompt our responses. All that's missing is the live orchestra. Radio drama's magic depended upon resonant, evocative voices, and director Scott Carr has assembled a talented aural quintet to portray all the many characters of Bedford Falls, New York, a microcosm of American small-town life between the wars. Steve Fenley, with his booming bass, is announcer, God, evil Mr. Potter, ineffectual Uncle Billy and smartass Ernie the cab driver. Matching Fenley's delicious ham, Alan Hall plays Clarence, the guardian angel who's sent to earth to teach George Bailey the moral of the story ("No man is a failure who has friends") and earn his wings after 200 years. Dave Maldonado's lively baritone overlays the story's hero, George, with an everyman tone that becomes increasingly more desperate with what he perceives as his useless, unfulfilled life. Lauren Dolk's calm and soothing alto becomes Mary, George's abiding wife, whose bedrock core of decency and strength is George's pillar; and Lendsey Kersey, looking lovely in sequined jacket and Rita Hayworth hair — Macy Perrone's costumes are spot-on — plays town sexpot Violet and Mom Bailey with equal appeal. But why Violet sports a lowdown accent as if she'd just stepped off the D Train from Grand Concourse is a mystery. Fictional Bedford Falls is placed in upstate New York, not the Bronx. Trey Otis's Art Deco-inspired set doesn't resemble any antique radio station's functional auditorium, but it's visually pleasing. The big fault in Landry's adaptation is having the actors create the sound effects. No vocal talent ever performed the footfalls, water sloshing or door slamming, or shook the metal sheet to replicate thunder. All that was carefully controlled by backstage effects pros. Actors at the mikes wouldn't be clopping around the studio anyway, since their own footsteps would've been broadcast across the country. Close your eyes at Texas Rep and relish the sounds. The five sonorous voices create all manner of pictures that dance in your head. Through December 23. Texas Repertory Theatre Co., 14243 Stuebner Airline. 281-583-7573. — DLG

Kimberly Akimbo Award-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has crafted a hybrid play, part comedy and part exploration of a rare medical condition. Mom is a hypochondriac, pregnant and with some real problems. Dad is an alcoholic in a dead-end job. Aunt Debra is an energetic schemer who's missing a few marbles and has a history of chicanery. Thank God for the teenagers. Neighbor Jeff is a bit of a geek, but his heart is in the right place and he cares about others. Daughter Kimberly is coping stoically with a rare, debilitating disease that ages her four and a half times faster than the chronological rate — at 16, her body is 72 years old. Jennifer Decker plays Mom, hugely pregnant, and she is intense and appealing as a woman who simply has learned the wrong coping tools. Luke Fedell plays Dad, a low-grade alcoholic, fortunately nonviolent, whose dreams are of such a low order that it approaches the endearing. Kim Tobin-Lehl plays Aunt Debra with enthusiasm and wide-eyed energy, making the most of a one-note character. Carolyn Houston Boone (an adult) plays Kimberly, the afflicted daughter, and creates a memorable portrait of a teenager trying to bring a sense of order to a dysfunctional family. She is well-matched by the remarkable Ty Doran, a ninth-grader, as Jeff, a teenager who befriends Kimberly and forms an attachment, seeing the youth inside her elderly body. The play has some amusing moments, but the aura of deepening depression works against humor and the script makes no serious effort to explore Kimberly's inner life. Kimberly Akimbo is directed with sensitivity and finesse by Houston theater veteran Ron Jones. The playwright under-delivers on both humor and insights, but the performances of Boone and Doran make this well worth seeing. Through December 15. Mildred's Umbrella, Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. 832-463-0409. — JJT

Sanders Family Christmas Part sacred and part comically profane, Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's musical testament to faith and family warms like hot chocolate and soothes like comfortable woolies. The ensemble cast plays it to perfection as the show veers between goofy comedy and misty-eyed sentiment, with musical numbers (gospel hymns, traditional carols, novelty songs) interspersed with "witnessing" monologues, some tender, some funny. The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church awaits the arrival of the renowned country gospel group the Sanders Family Singers. Pastor Oglethorpe (Kevin Dean) is atwitter at the visit. Burl (Gerry Poland) is the patriarch, a big, savvy country boy. His wife Vera (Shondra Marie) will "blister" anyone's backside if they disrespect her, or the Lord. Twins Dennis (Robert Price) and Denise (Sarah Cooksey) are on the verge of adulthood, with Dennis soon off to war. The play is set on Christmas Eve 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rejoining the family is Uncle Stanley (Craig Griffin), an ex-con who's had a quick brush with fame by singing in a Hollywood western with Gene Autry. Unassuming, plain June (Katharine Hatcher) is the "nonmusical" Sanders. Although no one in the congregation is deaf, June "signs" the songs. Ms Hatcher gives one of the drollest performances so far this season, using a deadpan expression and exquisite timing that would do Buster Keaton proud. Music makes them whole, but the binding tie is family. Sanders Family Christmas is directed with a mighty sure touch by Joey Watkins, and the joys of Christmas are apparent. No matter what you believe, there's faith in that. Through December 31. A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. 713-526-2721. — DLG

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